Steve Martin, Martin Short (and Selena Gomez) together again, living the true crime dream
Steve Martin and Martin Short seem to love working together. Sometimes their mutual projects zing, while others flop, so Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building felt like a crapshoot, especially with Selena Gomez cast as an equal to these known titans of comedy. Not only does she ably hold her own, she helps make this offbeat show an absolute delight.
Press play to hear a narrated version of this story, presented by AudioHopper.
Charles is an actor resigned to the fact that his glory days are gone, while Oliver is a washed-up theatrical director who doesn’t know how to quit. The two casual acquaintances live at The Arconia, a swanky Upper West Side apartment building worthy of its address. On a fateful elevator ride, they encounter fellow resident Mabel, and a man carrying a trash bag. That very day, the mysterious man ends up dead.
As it turns out, Charles, Oliver, and Mabel don’t only share an address, but also a love of true-crime podcasts. When they learn they encountered the dead man shortly before his demise, they’re certain his death couldn’t possibly be the simple suicide the police have ruled. Armed with little more than a mighty sense of conviction, the trio decide it’s their job to uncover the truth of the murder. While they agree their journey may lead them to other nefarious crimes, they vow to keep their focus on Only Murders in the Building. This will also be the name of the podcast they create as they record every step of their makeshift investigation.
While a premise so twee could play out like a mere trifle, the powerhouse cast, intelligent writing, and brisk pace give this story enough momentum to build suspense while sparking joy. Every episode of the show represents a particular episode of the podcast, with a self-aware nod to the known structure of every good true-crime story. As the amateur sleuths uncover secrets about the (possible) murder victim, the audience discovers the truth about the detectives.
Only Murders in the Building acknowledges the endearing earnestness of the true crime genre, and sees the fans as people who yearn to find meaning in life by making sense of the senseless. At the same time, it relentlessly skewers the medium’s conventions, and it’s hard to imagine ever hearing a buoyant piano or accordion-heavy podcast score again without thinking of this show.
As Charles, Steve Martin skillfully taps into that well of pathos that lurks under the braggadocio of his best characters. Meanwhile, Martin Short’s Oliver refuses to acknowledge the undertow eager to drag him down, and these comedic foils offer these actors quite the playground for shenanigans. On the other hand, Mabel’s existence is much darker than her elders know, and her motives remain a question for the audience, too.
Though she is more than forty years younger than her cohorts, it’s refreshing that the men never treat Mabel with condescending paternalism or make wildly inappropriate overtures at her. At most, they try (and fail) to be hip, but otherwise, she’s simply another human being existing in the world, and this structure gives Gomez room to transform from a pop ingenue into a solidly adult television lead.
The strong supporting cast gamely hits back whatever the show throws their way, and the surprisingly charming art direction gives the storytelling unexpected oomph. Sting even shows up as himself, though he’s awfully grumpy, and may or may not have killed one of the building’s beloved pets.
Only Murders in the Building is that rare TV magic—it’s got the right elements, cast, and concept that hit in the most pleasing way. One might even say it kills.