Only Murders in the Building, Hulu’s 10-part mystery series, has an immediate hook thanks to its seemingly mismatched cast – comedy veterans Martin Short and Steve Martin, both in their 70s, and millennial superstar Selena Gomez, in her first scripted television role since Wizards of Waverly Place, the late-2000s Disney show that launched her career. The show is available on Disney+Hotstar for Indian viewers.
The series, which was created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman (a producer on Netflix’s Grace and Frankie) and produced by Dan Fogelman, the creator of This Is Us, is less of a murder mystery and more of a showcase for cross-generational repartee, with the added mystery of how Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez were persuaded to perform and produce a show about true crime aficionados turned amateur detectives.
Despite many gesticulating, rolling punchlines, sitcoms irreverence, and creative direction, Only Murders in the Building amounts to a murder mystery with the lull of podcast voice.
Jamie Babbit’s pilot begins in bloody media res, with Gomez’s Mabel standing over a body, telling a startled Martin and Short that “it’s not what you think.”
Only Murders then cuts back in time (two months earlier) to when its three protagonists were still strangers in their shared Upper West Side building, the Arconia, in a narrative device that will be familiar to watchers of HBO’s smash summer hit The White Lotus.
Martin’s Charles is a former TV investigator on the decline, who enjoys dropping his tired tagline (“this sends the investigation into a whole new direction”) and keeping people at a distance.
Oliver, played by Short, is a talkative, cash-strapped Broadway producer who finds it difficult to sustain connections (his apartment is “all I have, it’s who I am,” he tells his kid).
Mabel, played by Selena Gomez, is a 20-something who lives in the posh Arconia (which is addressed) and uses sarcasm and Beats headphones to hide a shady history.
Though set in a non-pandemic parallel January 2021, the show is set in 2015, as all three characters are fans of the true-crime podcast All is Not OK in Oklahoma, presented by the “queen of true crime,” Cinda Canning (Tina Fey), which is a parody of Serial and her narrator par excellence, Sarah Koenig.
Because of their shared interest in real crime, the trio becomes overly invested in the gunshot death of a young man in their building, which police rejected as a suicide.
They transform their chaotic, comic investigation into their true-crime podcast, focusing on “only murders in the building.”
From suspecting Sting (playing himself) to a scene involving a dead cat, the inquiry pings around with comedic incompetence. The main event is the unlikely spectacle of two comic heavyweights batting about with Gomez – a fun enough coupling that never quite transcends the scripts’ apparent beats.
Martin and Short appear to be having a great time as if this type of activity is second nature to them. Gomez’s open, sensitive face is at its best when discreetly showing Mabel’s shock, anguish, or indifference, but her comic timing is wrong, most likely due to TV nervousness, which the actor admitted in an interview with the New York Times.
Despite all of the scurrying between Arconia floors, the series is often pedestrian, its lighthearted antics allowing multitasking with, for instance, a phone. The show’s humorous cadence is smooth but never sharp, like a steep, banked turn.
The gags frequently boil down to “older people attempting to relate to millennials,” which is only marginally entertaining at most. Fans of Martin, Short, or Gomez (like me) will almost certainly find enough to keep them going.
Those that do will be rewarded by the show’s later episodes, which are more expansive and startling. Only Murders, like High Fidelity, a half-hour Hulu series set in New York, benefits when it shifts perspective away from its central trio – to Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s true crime wary police detective; to the adult deaf son (James Caverly) of podcast sponsor and neighbor Teddy Dimas (Nathan Lane), in a nearly dialogue-free episode that is easily the series’ most absorbing; to superfans of the Only Murders podcasts.
Those shifts give enough originality to allow the audience to accept disbelief on a few loose ends, such as a subplot involving a character who has been unfairly imprisoned for ten years, which the scripts frequently mention but rarely explore.
Only Murders in the Building has an oddly thin grasp on one’s attention for a series about obsession. The show appears to be figuring things out as it goes, much like the real crime podcasts that inspired it.
Whether or not you join the trip is a matter of personal preference for the performers – and how much time you’re willing to devote to a mildly rewarding voyage.
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