Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez start a true-crime podcast in a New York-set dramedy that offers plenty of charm with room to grow.
Like its stars, Hulu original Only Murders in the Building, a 10-episode series focused on murders, podcasts, and murder podcasts, mixes the old with the new. Created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman, the often-light dramedy stars Martin alongside Selena Gomez and Martin Short, three tenants of a high-rise, upper-class New York City apartment complex. It attempts to appeal to the widest of audiences, from upstart New Yorkers to murder aficionados to TV-watchers who need their grandchildren to set up streaming services. And it (mostly) succeeds.
A broad comedy with dramatic elements, Only Murders in the Building follows Charles-Haden Savage (Martin), an offer-only actor who was once the star of a detective show called Brazos, Oliver Putnam (Short), a theatre director who hasn’t had a profitable play in decades, and Mabel Mora (Gomez), a secretive 20-something living in her aunt’s apartment. The three of them meet due to their love of murder podcasts, their fascination with unsolved cases, thinking they’d be able to be detectives if they had the chance. They get their chance when the murder of Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) occurs in their building, forming a team to solve the murder, which was ruled a suicide, and to make a podcast in the process.
Leaning on the audience’s knowledge of the murder podcast industry, one that seemed to boom a decade prior, the series wants to have it all. It wants to have a ragtag mystery, the drama of murder and intrigue, and the comedic talents of Martin (and) Short tying it all together for something more enjoyable than morose. And Short gives a performance outweighing his counterparts, the most eccentric, cash-strapped, and wiry of the bunch. He’s manic, combining signature wit with a downtrodden likability with the knowledge of high-art floating between monologues of charm.
Gomez as Mabel Mora, though reserved in her performance, becomes the bearer of youth, for both the show and the other actors. She seems coy, bordering on uncaring, providing a needed, stark contrast to her neighbors. Each of the characters is desperate for the murder, not for it to happen, but for it to exist. The unexciting continuity and loneliness of Savage’s life or the income lacking in Putnam’s or even the closing of a decades-old friendship for Mora; all of them somehow require this murder to happen. A man has to die for them to become whole again, and in that juxtaposition, the series finds some semblance of meaning beyond the silliness of their podcast or the seriousness of their investigation.
Only Murders in the Building relies on these high-profile names to make the comedy work, though it’s never laugh-out-loud funny. Seeing these three neighbors together in oddball and unforeseen situations gives the show enough chuckles to focus on the murder itself, which quickly overtakes the joke-telling. It’s not a flashy piece of television, even if it’s well-made. It’s bright, not drab, and keeps a lightness in both color and tone.
It brings in heavy hitters to support, with Nathan Lane and Tina Fey offering lights-out performances as Teddy Dimas and Cinda Canning, respectively. Dimas is basically the king of hummus, owning a massive empire that contributes to Putnam’s big ideas for Broadway shows. But Fey steals every moment she pops up as Canning, a play on the “Serial” podcast’s Sarah Koenig, playing a bigwig in the murder podcast industry. She even resembles Koenig in voice and appearance.
Only Murders in the Building can only exist as a riff on “Serial” and other huge podcasts.
Fey, Lane, and other apartment dwellers keep the show afloat as it drags towards a conclusion, with episodes feeling more extended as the series progresses. Character development takes a backseat for the majority of the series, with snippets of backstory being revealed while the mystery pumps energy into the narrative. It becomes tougher to care about these three wannabe detectives, as you find more interest in their interconnected relationships than the pasts that brought them to this moment.
Only Murders in the Building can only exist as a riff on “Serial” and other huge podcasts, though. It rarely exceeds the ceiling of that label, even if it’s an enjoyable and engaging series with committed leads seeming to have a rollicking time. That’s not a bad place to be, though.
Eight episodes were screened for critics.
The first three episodes of Only Murders in the Building are available on Hulu, with new episodes airing weekly.