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Only Murders in the Building Cracks Open a Fantastic Comedic Mystery

Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

Only Murders in the Building achieves exactly what it sets out to accomplish, providing a vehicle for Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez, and many others, to show off their talents. If that was all the show did, it would already be pretty good, but the show transcends just being a star vehicle and, throughout the first three episodes, becomes richer and more engaging by the moment. The actors, characters, setting, style, and plot all tie together to make Only Murders in the Building amazing. The series is both loving homage and parody of the murder mystery podcast craze. But instead of being arch and outlandish, from the first moments of S1E1, “True Crime” onward the creators show that they are most interested in the characters.  

As the narration reminds the viewers near the beginning of S1E2, “Who is Tim Kono?”, to invest in the mystery, you have to understand who the characters are and invest in them. Only Murders in the Building starts adding and peeling away layers to the three leads from the opening scene. Charles Hayden Savage (Steve Martin) is bristly and unlikeable, Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) is vainglorious and entitled, and Mable Mora (Selena Gomez) is disconnected and checked out. They are thrown together by the murder of Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) after they were all with him in an elevator in their Upper West Side apartment complex, the Arconia, just before he was killed. They are also all obsessed with the same true-crime podcast, Everything is Not OK in Oklahoma.

Oliver (Martin Short) and Charles (Steve Martin) sit at a table in a dark restaurant with their hands to their ears listening to a podcast that is playing on Oliver's computer which is in the foreground on the table
Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

It is the connection to the podcast that gives the show its first real divergence in the narrative that makes it feel unique and extremely modern. We get to watch the main characters listen to and interact with the podcast and the notion that these three very different people are all obsessed with this macabre, but sanitized, exploration of heinous crimes shines a light on each of them as characters, and on why people are so drawn to shows like this. It isn’t until after the three have bonded over the podcast while evacuated from their building that the trio learns of the murder in their building, but it is that moment that draws them together and sets them apart. 

After they discover the murder, Putnam decides they should create their own podcast which, in a move that makes logical narrative sense but also makes it difficult to write about, is also titled Only Murders in the Building. As I think show creators Steve Martin, Dan Fogelman, and John Hoffman intended, this creates a meta show within a show narrative that we are taken in and out of throughout the season so far. (Martin and Hoffman are also the co-writers of S1E1.) In a rather perfect example of this, it turns out that the narration introducing each of the three leads that begins “True Crime” is the introductory narration of the podcast. 

Only learning this after the fact allows for great questions to arise about whether the narration was true, or if it was all just how the characters want to present themselves to each other. The narration throughout the show then takes on all of those questions. In true crime podcasts, the narrative is created to drive the story and everything leads back to the story the podcaster intended to tell. 

Only Murders in the Building is both a TV show and a podcast, and as such, it is touching on and deconstructing the tropes of both. Most of the show is shot in a hyper-realistic one-camera setup but it branches away from that for visual and artistic flourishes at least once per episode. The recurring images of things bouncing off the ground in “Who Is Tim Kono?” create some powerfully moving moments for each of the characters. The up-close style also provides a contrast to the broadly drawn supporting characters, while the residents of the Arconia are cartoonish, but our vantage point is first-person realism. This all helps the show build and establish a fully realized world of its own. And then throw our three main characters headfirst into that world.

Charles (Steve Martin), Oliver (Martin Short), and Mable (Selena Gomez) Stand next to each other on a city street at night, police in the background, Oliver is pushing a cart holding Winnie the bulldog
Photo courtesy of Hulu

For his performance as Charles-Haden Savage, Steve Martin can draw on both his immense comedic skills and his more grounded, age-infused, worldview. Savage was once a star and while people still remember his most famous role, he has become trapped within himself now. That is certainly not true for Martin, who continues to produce personal work, especially music, but it could have been where he wound up. That notion that Savage and Martin represent divergent paths that a similar sort of person could take is baked into Martin’s performance. 

Savage’s most famous role was as the Barreta/Columbo-esque “Detective Brazzos”. And the parallels between Brazzos and Savage are also striking. (The are all variants perhaps?) It is also the case that after three episodes we still don’t know a lot about Savage, but his use of one of Brazzos’s speeches instead of his backstory when he is supposed to be opening up to Mabel is indicative of the way this onion still has many layers to unravel.

Contrasting Martin’s closed-off version of Savage, the portrayal of Oliver Putnam may be the most grounded and accessible performance of Martin Short’s career. Short often has an exaggerated acting style that I’ve often felt makes it difficult to relate to his characters. Oliver has some of those same quirks but oddly, they work well here. Short never goes too far over the top except in the flashbacks and scenes where it is clear that Oliver himself is acting. And the entire plotline where Oliver visits his son only to wind up asking for money is one of the more emotionally devastating moments so far. 

Short plays the moments perfectly, with a brash haughtiness when Oliver is in “director” mode but with a quiet, mournful, sadness when we see him thinking about the ramifications of his actions. Oliver also has a gorgeous and adorable bulldog named Winnie and the interactions between the two are incredibly funny and sometimes heartbreaking. I never expected to be so moved by a Martin Short performance, but Only Murders in the Building seems capable of just that.

Also unexpected is just how fantastic Selena Gomez is as Mable Mora. Gomez may be known for her music first, but her acting here is spectacular. Not only does she “hold her own” with the two comic legends, but she also has an amazing dramatic sensibility and comedic timing of her own. Mabel is the dramatic center of the show, as it is her murder mystery to solve, and Tim Kono turns out to have been her childhood friend. But the character is drawn out in even more directions. Mable is keeping the biggest secrets. Mable has the physic conversations with her dead friend. 

Mable (Selena Gomez) stands on a roof, wearing a scarf and overcoat, looking distraught
Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

And it is Mable around whom the entire show will revolve because her character is also the most grounded and real of the three. Whether playing dispassionate and above it all or crying in the corner, Selena Gomez brings warmth and depth to the character. Also, Gomez delivers some of the best timed and wittiest lines of the show proving that the dramatic heart of the show can also be funny.

In addition to Martin, Short, and Gomez, there is also a fourth lead character, the Arconia itself. I always love shows or films where the location or setting feels like a character and this one does not disappoint. The Arconia (portrayed with stunning beauty by the real-life Belnord) is that quintessential type of upper-crust “Upper West Side” residence. The impossibly beautiful courtyard, the multimillion-dollar apartments, and the eclectic characters are all essential parts of the charm. But the Arconia is also great because you can feel how well it fits the darker themes of the show as well. Living in one of these types of apartments the residents don’t tend to just think their neighbors have dark secrets, they know it. The building sometimes starts to feel as though it requires it. The walls have ears, and the people must pay the price for living in such luxury.

Only Murders in the Building starts strong and just keeps getting more interesting as it goes along, but I did have two significant issues with the show, both first bugging me in S1E3, “Who Are Your Neighbors?” The first issue is that, while all of the residents of the Arconia are caricatures, the absolute worst of these stereotypes is Howard (Michael Cyril Creighton), the “overly emotional cat lover”. I will gladly admit, I am a cat lover, so perhaps it is a personal issue, but I hate that this particular character is the go-to type of “cat lover” in media. Howard is needy, creepy, and obsessive, making Oliver easily suspect he is the murderer, which is all perfectly OK and is well performed and funny. (Especially Charles’s obvious disdain at even being near Howard.) It is just the trope itself that I wish they would have steered away from. Also, if someone’s amazing cat did get murdered, and by all accounts Evelyn was fantastic, then I think it is fine for everyone to be upset about it.

The other issue is the very last scene of S1E3 “Who Are Your Neighbors?” Oliver’s amazing and beautiful bulldog, Winnie, is put in danger. I can’t even think about it because it is too traumatic, but if I don’t find out that Winnie is OK then that’s it for me with the show. And with Sting too, I’ll never be able to get his closing rendition of “Don’t Stand So Close To Me” out of my head.

Only Murders in the Building is really funny, with well drawn characters and a compelling plot, but I need my precious Winnie back in the stroller, or there are some things that a show just can’t come back from.

Written by Clay Dockery

Clay Dockery is an actor, author, and impresario extraordinaire. He is the co-editor of Why I Geek: An Anthology of Fandom Origin Stories and was the co-head organizer and creative director of MISTI-Con, Coal Hill Con, and The West Wing Weekend fandom conventions. He lives in New York City with his girlfriend and two chonky cats.

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