Though a little sillier than recent installments, "Fan Fiction" is an agreeably funny episode that eventually raises the dramatic stakes.
- - The mystery continues to tighten as our heroes keep snooping where they're not welcome
- - Martin Short gets to lean hard on digging into Steve Martin, one of his great strengths
- - The expansion of the show's popularity to have superfans is a sly meta-commentary
- - Giving newly introduced fans the spotlight slows things down a bit more than is welcome
- - The twists surrounding deli king Teddy Dimas take some time to sift through
- - As before: can this show stick the landing or will it sputter out?
This review contains spoilers for Only Murders in the Building. Read our previous reviews to catch up.
How do you know when you’ve become successful at something? Accomplishment takes many forms, but in the world of creativity, an easy way to see that success is to have fans. Within the world of Only Murders in the Building, the excellent new series from Hulu, fandom was a clear sign of success for star podcaster Cinda Canning (Tina Fey), because her popularity as well as the popularity of her true-crime podcast “All Is Not OK in Oklahoma” inspired a trio of New Yorkers to create a true-crime podcast of their own. Though they were separately lonely, together, Charles (Steve Martin), Oliver (Martin Short) and Mabel (Selena Gomez) make for an odd but charming trio trying to figure out the circumstances of the death of a fellow resident in their apartment building.
When they started their podcast, which shares its title with the Hulu series name itself, they struggled to get traction in the case with a prime suspect, listeners and even a sponsor. But by episode eight, “Fan Fiction,” the podcasting trio has all of that. They’re firmly convinced, and reasonably so, that their prime suspect is their sponsor, Teddy Dimas (Nathan Lane), as well as his deaf son Theo (James Caverly), who flashbacks have already revealed is responsible for the death of Mabel’s old friend Zoe (Olivia Reis), a death that the now-dead Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) saw and kept quiet about, allowing their mutual pal Oscar (Aaron Dominguez) to take the fall and wind up in prison for years..
Thanks to Canning calling out the show on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon, the podcast not only has listeners, but superfans the same way that Charles, Oliver and Mabel themselves were. In fact, “Fan Fiction” kicks off with narration from one of those fans, Sam (Jaboukie Young-White), gushing about how amazing it is to have found yet another true-crime show to fawn over, as well as some other awkward-seeming fans, Paulette (Ali Stroker), Marv (Daniel Oreskes) and Grant (Orson Hong), who share the same passion in “Only Murders in the Building.” And since the podcast is emphatically about events at the Arconia, the quartet of superfans plant themselves right outside its gates.
Most pressing at the start of “Fan Fiction” is the fate of Oliver and Mabel, who were kidnapped at the end of the previous episode by Theo and thrown into a van because he knows that they’re aware of his family’s criminal actions. Theo drives them to a nearby dump, where they’re greeted by Teddy and a slick SUV. Once inside, Teddy faces away from his son “because it’s not good for a son to hear or see his father say certain things.” Teddy doesn’t deny any of the charges against him —primarily the grave-robbing and that Theo murdered Zoe over his family-heirloom ring — and informs Oliver that it’s time for the podcast to end. Specifically, he tells Oliver that they need to record a new episode by 7 a.m. the next morning, in which they close out the show for good ... or else. “I know where you live,” he points out calmly. Upon this threat, Oliver and Mabel are dropped off in front of the Arconia, where they’re shocked to find the superfans.
They head inside the building, where they urgently try to inform Charles of what’s going on only to be greeted in his apartment by Jan (Amy Ryan), who’s not only continuing to canoodle with Charles (or as she puts it, “celebrating one another’s bodies”), but has quickly been brought up to speed by the ex-actor on the events of Tim Kono’s death and the podcast itself. While Oliver and Mabel were trying not to be killed, Charles and Jan successfully got into Tim’s phone and discovered him to be quite meticulous in his business dealings, documenting as much as possible on his phone. That includes the detail about Tim seeing Theo kill Zoe, which even Mabel and Oliver didn’t know. Jan seems particularly chirpy, happy to be involved in the investigation, but Mabel and Oliver are the exact opposite, with Mabel encouraging the older men that they need real back-up, from the person who gave them Tim’s phone, the once-dismissive Detective Williams (Da'Vine Joy Randolph).
Later that day, our trio head out to a secluded spot to meet Detective Williams, who has to walk them through her reasoning in ever giving them Tim’s phone, without actually acknowledging the fact that it was her to start with: she wants them to reveal their evidence in a podcast, even if it means them signing their own death warrant by accusing the very man threatening them. “It’s the who, the how, the why and the why now,” she emphasizes to them, even as it’s clear that they’re struggling to keep all of those details in their heads as they attempt to make the case that she can’t.
Back at the Arconia, Charles, Mabel and Oliver are trying to map out their next steps with the 7 a.m. deadline looming (with Jan there, mostly because Charles wants her there). Oscar arrives to reveal some “big news” with the case, after having met with the same jewelry connection Tim had met with before being killed. He was unable to get the very ring at the center of Theo’s crime ... because the connection sold it to Tim. It’s a surprising twist for our heroes, because they haven’t found the ring in spite of Mabel finding Tim’s secret treasure trove of jewelry.
Mabel and Oliver are convinced it’s the Dimas family who’s behind it. It’s all well and good until Jan expresses skepticism that it’s that simple, a point that simply annoys the non-Charles part of the trio. Oliver decides to go get his favorite food — dips — to pair with the snacks they have as they work through the muddle of what to say on the next podcast, and a chance meeting with Sam and the other podcast superfans leads him to do what he does best: drag more people into his whirlpool.
That’s how the superfans wind up in the belly of the beast, so to speak, offering their own insight into what’s going on with the Dimas family. Both Mabel and Charles are bewildered by their entry, though Oliver points out that they’re far better than Jan, who is “how do I put this politely? Reverse-helpful.” Aside from insulting Jan, Oliver’s able to win his podcasters over by pointing out that these fans are basically just the three of them, before their podcast was ever a thing.
Even with the fans onboard, Jan continues to push against the Dimas family being involved, pointing out the as-yet-unresolved mystery of the dead cat and his nasty owner Howard Morris (Michael Cyril Creighton). Charles is the only one willing to hear Jan out, especially since Howard was an early suspect. Oliver, feeling especially pushy, argues this away and shifts to a new theory, about the suicide notes Tim was carrying around, stating that they maybe were death threats from the Dimas family.
This is mostly just an excuse — a funny one, to be fair — for Martin Short to once again don his theatrical hat, as Oliver demands that the three superfans (Grant had to go home for a piano lesson, and also because he’s a kid) reenact his theory by playing the characters in his sordid play.
“Don’t you think it’s all a little too easy?” Jan asks, urging them further to check out Howard. But Oliver and Mabel know that the timing is quick, so they urge Charles to start recording. “Your input is destructive and your pizza rolls are chewy,” Oliver snaps as he kicks Jan out. She returns home, frustrated, to find a note on her door, simply reading “I’m watching you.” Uh-oh.
Meanwhile, Charles finishes up the recording in front of the awed superfans. “I feel like I just watched Prince record Purple Rain,” Sam says, gleefully. All seems like it’s gone well enough: they’re risking themselves by speaking out against the Dimas family, but they’re confident. They share the podcast with a stunned Detective Williams first, before we see a very angry Teddy Dimas, who grows angrier when the detective greets him at his apartment to arrest him and his son. Everyone listening seems pretty impressed ... except the superfans, who begin to nitpick. Why, for example, would Teddy sponsor a podcast whose sole purpose would be to take him down?
For us, it’s an easy enough answer: there are two episodes left in the first season, so it can’t be done yet, right?
Charles is dismayed to not get any responses to his texts to Jan, but otherwise all seems well. Mabel shows Oscar an old mobile video proving Tim clearly was trying to take down the Dimas family for their crimes (and they did commit some bad crimes), as well as atoning for his sins against Oscar. Detective Williams is celebrating on the phone with Oliver, until she gets Tim’s autopsy and time-stamped photos. The first shows that Tim was killed by poisoning, and the second shows that the Dimas were already outside when the fire alarm was pulled. They’re criminals, but “there may still be a murderer in the building,” according to Oliver.
Charles is understandably furious, and goes to Jan’s to mend fences, only to discover that her apartment door is ajar and she’s been stabbed. It’s a shocking ending, especially because I have to admit that earlier scenes in the episode ... well, they began to make me wonder about Jan. It’s not quite that Oliver and Mabel’s antipathy towards her feels fully justified — it very much does not — but Jan goes out of her way to steer the trio to their neighbor Howard, which feels pointed. Or perhaps it’s just that with two episodes left, anything out of the ordinary feels pointed. Either way, Jan has been stabbed, and the tension is rising.
As always, I have one question with this show: can it stick the landing? So far, it’s batting eight for eight, with one solid episode after another. Fingers crossed the last two episodes work.
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