“Only Murders in the Building” is a love letter to New York that translates even to people who loathe New York. It’s a multi-faceted comedy that features two greats from the 80s who have evolved with the times: Steve Martin and Martin Short. It anchors Selena Gomez as an exceptional actor. It features one of the best ensembles in recent memory. It’s a mystery that’s more successful and intriguing than most of what passes for a mystery.
Steve Martin plays Charles, the former TV star of a terrible detective show. Martin Short is Oliver, a has-been Broadway producer who’s heavily in debt. Selena Gomez is Mabel, a woman who’s recently moved into the same expensive apartment complex. The three exist in separate worlds until one day they enter the same elevator as a man who’s minutes away from being murdered.
Their sudden discovery of loving the same true crime podcast (“All is Not OK in Oklahoma”) sends them barreling down the road of producing their own. After all, they have a murder in their building. One of them’s a producer, one an actor, and Mabel turns out to be a natural investigator. They can be first on the scene for any developments. The police suspect it’s a suicide, but three random New Yorkers with nothing else to do know better, right?
The show starts out with each episode considering a different suspect, but quickly gets more complex. The supporting cast is ridiculous: Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Amy Ryan, Aaron Dominguez, Jane Lynch. Even Sting makes an appearance. It plays with the idea that it’s usually the famous guest star who’s guilty on a show. If half the supporting cast is famous, that assumption’s out the window.
“Only Murders in the Building” remembers the art of the red herring, the false clue that leads our investigators down the wrong path. The episodes sometimes mirror their podcast’s episodes, toying cleverly with ideas of filler and overdramatization.
What really makes “Only Murders in the Building” special is its understanding of being surrounded by people and yet being lonely. Charles, Oliver, and Mabel are each painfully lonely in unique ways, and each of them responds differently.
Charles follows daily routines that anesthetize him to the world. Their structure creates a space where he can’t get hurt, or feel much of anything. He’d rather perform an emotion than let someone witness a real one. What we can forget about Steve Martin’s comedy is how melancholic it can be, how aching he can make a moment, how he can share shame and embarrassment in a way that’s universal.
Oliver keeps on reaching out, garrulous, friendly, charming in an often desperate way. His isolation isn’t a finely-tuned discipline like Charles’s, but rather chaotic and uncontrolled. Too many productions of his flopped. Too many people have loaned him money. No one trusts him anymore, and the minute they let him back into their lives, he’s asking for something. Martin Short walks the fine line of someone who’s honest but doesn’t know when to stop, who’s sure the next idea will be the one to save him instead of dig him deeper.
Mabel is determined. Her loneliness is created out of trauma and loss, though it takes us time to understand it. She’s still figuring out who she wants to be. Her concern is keeping people at a distance for their own safety. If everyone around her suffers tragedy, why would she keep anyone around her? Charles and Oliver are in many ways safe because they’re set in their ways. She may hide things from them, but she doesn’t imagine she can influence their decisions.
Selena Gomez is the standout here. That shouldn’t be a surprise by now, even when paired with generational actors. It might be easy to dismiss her as a pop star, but she’s had a few awards-worthy performances over the past decade. She’s the dramatic core, and matches Steve Martin’s acerbic wit while often carrying the show.
So everyone’s lonely and tragic. Sounds like a hoot, right? Yet “Only Murders in the Building” is one of the funniest shows of the year. It humanizes these things rather than exploiting them. It finds the identifiable and empathetic in them. That’s where the comedy comes out. These three people can understand each others’ loneliness. Because they understand it, they can poke fun at it as a way of drawing closer and building trust. They can communicate out of it. It’s a private grammar they understand and the rest of the world doesn’t. The situational and physical comedy, the mystery and true crime parodies – these all work because of our fundamental empathy for these characters. They speak to parts of us on a level not many things do.
I love a parody that can poke fun at its genre, but when it houses itself in that genre, believes in it, and understands how that genre captures us, even manipulates us – then it can exist both inside that genre and as a comment on it, it can create its own world with its own comedic logic that we’re willing to follow because its humanity feels more transparent and honest. When it gets abstract or shifts into performance art, or has a celebrity play themselves, there’s a trust that’s been earned that many other shows couldn’t even imagine is a possibility.
“Only Murders in the Building” is about a murder mystery, the true crime industry, dry wit and pratfalls, sure. What it really speaks to is our desperate need to build community around whatever we can get our hands on in a world that evokes more loneliness by the day. Making a joke of that has to be done a certain way – to disarm it rather than exacerbate it. “Only Murders in the Building” helps us feel in on that joke, helps us feel seen, gives us moments where we can have power over that lonely part of ourselves, even if only for 10 episodes.
You can watch “Only Murders in the Building” on Hulu. It has been renewed for a second season.
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