'The Sting' introduces an impossible theory but has fun with its celebrity cameo performer.
- 🔪 Sting's haughtiness balances nicely against our heroes.
- 🔪 Steve Martin and Amy Ryan have solid chemistry.
- 🔪 The confidence this show has in its central mystery is well-earned.
- 🔪 The Sarah Koenig riff is maybe too on-the-nose.
- 🔪 Sting's involvement being minimal is an all-too-obvious red herring.
- 🔪 Is Tie-Dye Guy another creative dead end?
This post contains spoilers for Only Murders in the Building.
Check out our last review here.
The third part of the three-episode premiere for Only Murders in the Building ended with a cliffhanger both ridiculous and almost mildly chilling. As the trio of true-crime podcasters continue their quest to learn who killed a young investment banker in their building...could the answer be the most famous tenant of all? Could it be none other than Gordon Sumner himself? ...You know, Sting? The Sting? Well, as this week’s episode -- appropriately titled “The Sting” -- clarifies, no, that’s not the case. (We’re only four episodes in, so giving away the killer now would be a Columbo-esque twist.) While Sting initially says he’s to blame for Tim Kono’s death, he’s not really the man who did it.
This episode does an effective job of upping the stakes of the story, both from the standpoint of our trio of leads and in terms of the actual mystery of Tim’s death. Outside of the actual premiere, each episode so far has carefully but emphatically centered itself on one of the three leads. Where “Who is Tim Kono?” focused on Mabel (Selena Gomez) and “How Well Do You Know Your Neighbors?” was about Oliver (Martin Short), “The Sting” shifts over to Charles (Steve Martin), as he balances his immense awkwardness around other people and his sad romantic past with his growing attraction to his bassoon-playing neighbor Jan (Amy Ryan).
This episode, more than previous installments, is a solid reminder that Steve Martin is an immensely charming actor, and one who’s been sorely missed from regular film and TV roles. His easygoing rapport with Ryan -- one that overcomes the admittedly substantial age difference of 23 years between the two performers -- is proof of how simple it is for Martin to create chemistry with his fellow cast members. Charles and Jan bond more at first over their love of music, with he playing his concertina from one window and she playing her bassoon from another across the courtyard. When their call-and-response of “If You’re Happy and You Know It” morphs into a duet of “If You Think I’m Sexy”, it’s genuinely very funny and sweet, leading to Jan confidently asking Charles on a date.
That is in spite of the hard truth that Charles is initially very uncomfortable with sharing any details of his past with Jan. When he builds up the courage to go on the date, he’s seemingly beset upon by two very strange mental images: Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig. Not the real animated characters but people in life-size character costumes, a harbinger of Charles’ past, like the mysterious Lucy, who was first mentioned in the pilot episode. Charles and Jan’s first date starts out nice, with her describing in detail her past, but as soon as it’s Charles’ turn to share, he shuts down and fizzles out. “The sharing of stories is kind of transactional,” Jan points out when Charles refuses to share what he calls “my red flags”.
By the episode’s conclusion, Charles is willing to speak truthfully about his last relationship of six years, and in so doing, we learn that Lucy isn’t a past girlfriend or wife of his, but the 7-year old daughter of his old girlfriend Emma. Lucy’s identity also explains the omelet Charles makes every day only to promptly discard: it’s her favorite and one he can’t quite stop making. And Bugs and Porky aren’t just random references to Martin’s underrated turn in the equally underrated Looney Tunes: Back in Action (seriously, that’s the movie Space Jam wishes it was). No, they’re fixed images of a disastrous cruise on which Charles brought Emma and Lucy, only to be left by Emma mid-cruise and “enjoying” a themed Looney Tunes meal by himself. It’s no surprise that Jan is much more interested in a second date after Charles shares this, having knocked on her door once again.
Outside of the personal issues, Charles and Mabel are initially shocked to hear from Oliver that his dog Winnie was attacked (in the final moments of the previous installment). As ridiculous as it is that Oliver accuses Sting of the crime, they’re unable to deny the severity of the attack and the corresponding note threatening to “end” Oliver. Also, there’s the fact that Tim lost a big client of his a ton of money recently, and that big client was Sting himself. (“Oh, the guy from U2?” Mabel asks, to the consternation of both Charles and Oliver.) Though the trio agrees that they need to confront Sting, they also realize that they have basically no way of doing so without giving up their game. So they decide to ask for help, as Charles can pull some strings with a fellow tenant (Maulik Pancholy) and get a meeting with none other than Sarah Koenig--er, sorry, Cinda Canning (Tina Fey, reprising her brief cameo from the premiere). She’s a dream interview to start with, as the host of “All is Not OK in Oklahoma”, the podcast over which the trio first bonded. And Cinda gives some helpful advice to the trio, after they explain what they’re up to: disarm Sting in such a way that he can’t help but talk to them and “embrace the mess”. They do so in the strangest way possible (after choosing to follow Cinda’s advice to the letter), bringing a fully cooked turkey to Sting’s apartment in the middle of the morning, right before the musician’s plans to reschedule a tour and renovate his apartment, both suspicious details to Oliver.
Odd as it is, the gambit works, with Sting recognizing Charles from his CBS procedural and immediately apologizing to Oliver for his previously grouchy behavior. And that, unfortunately for our heroes, is a clue that as famous as Sting is, he’s not actually responsible the way that they think he is. That’s even though Sting says, “I killed him.” Yes, it’s true: Tim Kono’s job at an investment firm in New York City meant that he coincidentally was working on an account for Sting, one that ended up losing quite a lot of money. And yes, Sting fired and got mad at Tim, telling him to go kill himself. But Sting is heartbroken and blames himself because he believes Tim took that malicious advice to heart, not that he killed Tim (or poisoned Oliver’s dog).
Sting has thus inadvertently removed himself from the running of being Tim Kono’s killer, but that doesn’t mean that the mystery is truly up. As Oliver and Charles talk things over in Oliver’s apartment, Oliver’s son Will (Ryan Broussard) comes by to confirm that Oliver’s dog is healthy again. He also mentions that he’s started listening to the podcast, and is shocked to learn that they’re spending time with Mabel. Why? Well, because he’s aware that she knew Tim Kono so well, a fact that shocks both older men. “That girl is bad news,” Will says before Oliver begs him to re-state it in front of a microphone.
Mabel, meanwhile, ends the episode convinced anew that she has to follow up on the mysterious Post-it note she found in Tim’s apartment, on the date and time mentioned with a set of initials and location. But little does she (seem to) know that she’s being tailed by Tie-Die Guy (AKA the stranger Charles saw in a tie-dye hoodie, walking up the stairs after the fire alarm went off the night of Tim’s murder). And in a final twist, a framing device in which we see and hear Cinda in the recording booth is clarified. It’s a few months later and she’s starting up a new true-crime podcast about the story of Tim Kono’s death and the presence of our heroes, called “Only Murderers in the Building”.
Four episodes in, Only Murders in the Building is proving to be one of the best shows of 2021. In the end, it’s going to depend as much on the revelations about who did kill Tim Kono, and Mabel’s past, as well as on the chemistry between Martin, Short, and Gomez. For now, at least, we can take comfort in the knowledge that the journey to whatever that destination may be is extremely enjoyable. Fingers crossed that this show sticks the landing, because the liftoff has been mighty satisfying.
Josh Spiegel is a freelance cultural critic who has been published in Slashfilm, SyFy, ScreenCrush, The A.V. Club, The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and others. His favorite films include Singin’ in the Rain, The Rocketeer, Pinocchio and A Matter of Life and Death. His favorite TV shows include Ted Lasso, Only Murders in the Building, Deadwood and Lost. He lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons and too many cats.
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