If you told me there was going to be a murder mystery series starring Steve Martin or Martin Short. I’d say, ‘Sold!’ Whichever Martin is starring, I am tuning in. With both of the duo teaming back up, suddenly the new Hulu series Only Murders In the Building is catapulted into must-watch television status. The pair have been delighting audiences as far back as 1986 with their first teaming in the film The Three Amigos. Several films and a touring two-man comedy show later and you have a classic comedy duo that has carved out something special. Even their talk show appearances are a thing of magic with the two constantly taking jabs at the personas they developed over the decades the way that only true friends can. I often question where do the characters end and their actual selves begin.
Luckily for viewers it is these long-standing personas that serve as the lead characters of the new series along with the welcome addition of Selena Gomez. Co-created by Steve Martin and Jonathan Hoffman Only Murders in the Building tells the adventures of a trio of podcast devotees and wannabe sleuths who team up to solve the murder of Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) a fellow (or former, RIP) tenant of their Manhattan apartment building. After his untimely, death by what police are declaring a suicide, the unlikely threesome work the case together to prove he was murdered. They launch a true crime podcast of their own as they do so.
The acquaintances turned crime-solving, podcast team consists of: Charlie (Martin) is a has-been actor known best for his role as 90s TV detective show ‘Brazzos.’ Oliver (Short), an eccentric, mildly successful Broadway producer whose stage adaptation of ‘Splash’ goes off so poorly that his career and finances have never recovered. Mabel (Gomez) the stylish, sarcastic and cynical millennial is a worthy counterpuncher to their snarky banter and jabs – she can give as well as she takes. Unbeknownst to the others, she also knows the victim. As their friendships grow and the mystery unfolds, so do the hidden truths about each of them.
The show spins a good web of mystery that seems to grow with every passing episode. The everybody-is-a-suspect approach leads to plenty of twists and turns that will keep you firmly engaged in the whodunit element. It also allows for an expansive cast as each new clue, as ludicrous as some may be, leads to potential suspects and witnesses. They let us inch along with just enough information to keep us hooked on the crime aspect. While the comedy and other hijinks ensue, the show never forgets this is a murder mystery after all. And, of course, there are plenty of red herrings along the way, which are par for the course.
The use of the podcast subplot is cleverly incorporated at times and leads to additional comic elements that fans of podcasts will enjoy while breathing in a modern touch. It sends up the podcast lifestyle while also holding it in high regards. Title cards that look like podcast episode splash screens, the occasional podcast commercial or reference all add to the slightly meta vibe throughout.
As Charlie and Oliver stumble through the production of the show, it is the audience who reap the benefits. From logistical issues like an uncomfortably hot closet substituting as a recording booth to their less than wordsmith voiceovers – it’s funny. The awkward moments like where Martin and Short’s attempt to keep their microphones under wraps as they interview unsuspecting ‘guests’ on their show are where their physical comedy skills and comic timing.
The inclusion of the trio’s own subplots and backstories add some welcome depth to all the characters and temporarily allows the mystery to take a back seat. Charlie’s romance with a bassoonist (Amy Ryan) Oliver’s financial difficulties and Mabel’s troubled past serve as more than a distraction. They flesh out the characters, humanizing them beyond walking punchline deliverers, making us care. The show also squeezes in observations about life in Manhattan – a love/hate/love relationship with the city that never sleeps that will play well with a certain crowd.
The series will keep you on your toes. From one episode to the next the side players change, including some very funny and unexpected cameos and familiar faces, even one of a certain rock legend. As the story is told from shifting perspectives and voice overs from the core cast to that of celeb podcaster (played by Tina Fey) to the victim. The ambitious approach opens it up, allowing for more insights without crowbarring in wordy exposition.
Of course, the main draw here are Martin and Short whose chemistry always keeps you waiting on every word. These are extensions of the personas they have created over the years and their timing is flawless. Fans will know what to expect and will not be disappointed. Those new to the duo will find plenty to love. The endless jabs at each other’s age, careers, looks are frequent and for me, never grow old. I will say it again, they are a joy to watch. It is like tagging along with two old friends.
Adding Gomez to the mixes works unexpectedly well. She brings with her youthfulness some generational gap and deadpan humor. While there are plenty of jokes about their age difference it is not over-mined – finding the balance so they stay fresh instead of tiresome. The writing is smart, the delivery is tight. By keeping it set in modern day New York, there is plenty of ammo to work with. Sure, not all the swings land as well as hoped, but when they do they deliver big enough laughs to help move past any rough spots.
There’s something cozy about the show. While unique in its own right, it share some traits of with PBS Mystery!, a touch of an Allen-esque take on Manhattan, hints of other classic procedurals all held together by the familiar and addictive comedy of Martin/Short. I did find it strange that it does lay a little heavy on the F-bombs. They feel out of place, and are the one thing that makes it tougher to recommend to audiences on both extreme ends of the age spectrum.
The charms of this caper are undeniable. The cast bring droll and madcap humor along with some heart, to a mystery that is intriguing enough to stand on its own. Only Murders In The Building goes down easy and keeps you wanting (and guessing) more. Even as I type this, in the back of my mind I am pleased knowing that I still have more episodes to enjoy later. I want to dive back in for more clues and more time with my favorite new podcasting trio. Hopefully a second season is already in the planning.
Hoffman and Martin have created a comforting show of sorts. It is the kind of series you squeeze in another episode before retiring off to bed. And you can bet it will keep you guessing and smiling as you do.
Only Murders in the Building is now streaming on Hulu.
(This review is based on the first 6 episodes)