Hulu's 'Only Murders in the Building' Is an Adorably Weird Upper West Side Caper
Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez make this mystery work surprisingly well.
The awkwardness of the title of Hulu's new comedyOnly Murders in the Building is fitting. The show, which debuts its first three episodes today, is delightfully askew. It shouldn't work, but it does.
Take the cast: There's Steve Martin, one of the co-creators along with John Hoffman, and Martin Short, two comedy legends known for their collaboration which range from The Three Amigos to Father of the Bride. Then there's Selena Gomez, the Disney star turned pop star, whose film career has been more interesting than most people would care to admit. (And who has a great cooking show on HBO Max, but that's neither here nor there.) They are an intentionally odd threesome, but this is an intentionally odd story.
On one hand, it's the type of zany fare one would expect from Martin and Short. On the other, it's a murder mystery about class conflict in New York City's Upper West Side. Outside of the three leads, it's packed with well-known to theatergoers but not super famous character actors, along with some jaw-dropping celebrity cameos. It's an oversized lumpy sweater of a series, cozy, occasionally itchy, but something you won't want to give up anytime soon.
Martin is Charles, a grumpy actor who was once the star of a Columbo-type TV show known as "Brazos." Short is Oliver, something of a Max Bialystock, a theater producer with a number of failed productions under his belt. And then there's Gomez, the millennial who doesn't quite fit in with the Upper West Side crowd. Her mystery—why she's living in an un-renovated apartment that seems way beyond her income bracket—is just as key to the narrative as who died.
Speaking of that: Charles, Oliver, and Mabel unite one evening when an alarm goes off in The Arconia, their shared building. They all file into a crowded nearby restaurant to take shelter, and realize they have something in common other than simply address. They are all fans of a certain true-crime podcast, hosted by a Sarah Koenig-type played by Tina Fey. This proves useful when it turns out that that very night a murder takes place right where they live. While the death of Tim Kono, a surly finance bro who no one likes, is immediately ruled a suicide, Charles, Oliver, and Mabel think something fishy is afoot.
The clunky syntax of the title is a joke in itself: The podcast this threesome forms is titled Only Murders in the Building, because they only cover murders that happen in their building. Oliver sees the podcast as his way back in the entertainment industry; for Charles, it satisfies his actor's ego; Mabel, however, has entirely different motives, but also finds a strange kinship with these old guys.
I've spent a lot of time trying to unpack the appeal of Gomez, who is not a traditionally "good" actress. Her line delivery is often flat and she can seem practically uncomfortable on screen. And yet she's a fascinating person to watch, and all of her tics work well in the context of Mabel, who has a lot to hide, but is ultimately sweet. You understand why these two lonely men would be drawn to her companionship, and her sardonic tone complements the two veterans' more exuberant take on the material. Martin and Short are, of course, great. Oliver is the ultimate Short role, a goofy, passionate man who is consistently in way over his head. Martin's Charles is a sourpuss, but he relishes the chances to slip back into his old cheesy ways as Brazos.
What keeps you hooked on Only Murders in the Building is that it works as well as a mystery as it does a comedy. Maybe it won't inspire the same theorizing as, say, a Mare of Easttown, but as each episode draws to a close, you'll want to know more and you'll want to spend more time with these curious weirdos. Perhaps the biggest mystery of all is why this is so darn enjoyable.