Only Murders in the Building

Only Murders in the Building

2021 - United States

The actors both bring their skill, honed over many years, of combining comedy and pathos, making you cry with laughter one minute, with sympathy the next…

Review by Daniel Tessier

True crime podcasts are one of the stranger media crazes of the 21st century. While true crime documentaries go back a long way, the podcast format has allowed such programmes to become more immediate, more bingeable, and more addictive. Just as old as true crime material, if not older, is crime fiction, with the whodunnit being one of the most enduring and popular fiction genres across all media. Of course, for it to be a really good one, there has to be a murder; or better yet, several murders.

So it's perhaps surprising that the idea of making a murder mystery fiction about a true crime podcast didn't appear until 2021, when Only Murders in the Building, co-created by and starring Steve Martin alongside Martin Short and Selena Gomez, took the world by storm. The Hulu series, streamed internationally on Disney Plus, works perfectly as both crime fiction and comedy, simultaneously balancing personal drama, romance, and outrageous theatricality.

Steve Martin - Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid

After a career spanning over fifty years as comedian, writer, actor, musician and producer, until recently it looked like things were beginning to wind down for Steve Martin. Best known worldwide for his comedic movie roles, from 1979's The Jerk, through the eighties with classics such as Dead Men Don't Wear Plaid, Roxanne and the exceptional Planes, Trains and Automobiles, into the nineties with the Father of the Bride series of family comedies, and finally the noughties with the Cheaper by the Dozen films. Martin wrote or co-wrote many of his best films, but his ill-advised reboot of The Pink Panther in 2006 marked a downward turn for his career, diminishing to small voice roles in animated films and guest appearances on television comedies. In 2014-15, however, two events revitalised Martin's career: writing and composing his first Broadway musical, Bright Star; and a reunion with fellow comedian Martin Short, his co-star in many films since 1986's Three Amigos! in a joint stand-up tour.

Martin Short - Three Amigos!

Since then, Steve Martin and Martin Short have rarely worked apart, with their 2018 television special An Evening You Will Forget For the Rest of Your Life being nominated for multiple Emmy Awards. Short has rarely been off the screen, be it in film, sitcoms or sketch shows, and has a prolific voice career. However, it was Only Murders in the Building which truly relaunched both Martins back into mainstream success and fame with a new generation.

Ten years earlier, Steve Martin conceived the idea of a series about three old men who were obsessed with solving crimes, but unable to go outside and get involved due to their age, decided to solve crimes confined to their own apartment complex. This evolved into Only Murders in the Building, mixed up by replacing one of the old men with a young woman (and making the other two rather less decrepit than originally planned). Martin worked with comedy writer John Hoffman (Grace and Frankie, Looking) to create the series, which was picked up in 2020 by Hulu to air in 2021, with Short holding an executive producer credit.

Steve Martin plays Charles-Haden Savage, a washed-up actor whose career is on its last legs. Unlike his creator, Charles is known for straight crime and mystery shows, and was the star of the fictitious series Brazzos, a series that was long-running and popular in the nineties, but is now looked back on as little more than a corny guilty pleasure. Pessimistic and anxious, Charles is largely estranged from his family and becoming increasingly reclusive.

Martin Short, meanwhile, plays Oliver Putnam, a flamboyant, fabulously dressed, and surprisingly heterosexual theatrical director. Ambitious and filled to bursting with ideas, he too is at the tail-end of his career, struggling to pay his bills and having an increasingly tenuous relationship with his son. His enthusiasm and optimism contrast with the weary Charles, but neither of them is truly realistic in their outlook.

Both Martins excel in their roles, bringing, one expects, an awful lot of themselves and their natural rivalry to Charles and Oliver's affectionately bitchy friendship. The actors both bring their skill, honed over many years, of combining comedy and pathos, making you cry with laughter one minute, with sympathy the next. They're two men who have learned to work perfectly together, slipping into a natural chemistry that their characters share.

Only Murders in the Building

Yet it's the third star, Selena Gomez, who really makes the whole thing come together. Gomez, who also has executive producer status on the series, wears even more hats than Steve Martin, being known as a singer, actor, producer, businesswoman, activist and philanthropist. Starting as a child actor in shows such as Barney and Friends, her break came as the lead in the long-running Disney series Wizards of Waverly Place. Off the back of this she began a hugely successful pop career, both solo and as part of The Scene, as well as carving out a movie career in both live action and voice roles.

As Mabel Mora, aka Bloody Mabel, Gomez becomes the unlikely but perfect third part of the crime-solving gang. Solitary, a little eccentric, and still finding her way in life, Mabel is an artist, living in her aunt's apartment while she renovates it. Already starting to fall behind the cutting edge she has, as Charles and Oliver say, “old lady energy.” Her chemistry with the two older actors is remarkable, developing into a believable and touching friendship between the three that, Gomez says, is reflected in their relationship off screen. The three of them, all living alone in an enormous Upper West Side complex named the Arconia, stumble across each other and discover their shared obsession with a true crime podcast. When a fellow Arconian they bumped into earlier, Tim Kono (Julian Cihi – The Tick, Gypsy) is found murdered, the trio decide to investigate. It's Oliver who comes up with the idea of making their own podcast – a surefire money-making scheme, as long as he can get someone to sponsor the show.

Only Murders in the Building

Their investigation into Tim Kono's murder reveals long-held secrets held by the Arconia's many residents, including Mabel, who is more closely linked to events than she would like to admit. The series is packed with established stars and those who are sure to soon be stars. The first season alone introduces Amy Ryan (The Wire, The Office USA) as Jan, a mysterious bassoonist who romances Charles; Jane Lynch (Glee, The L-Word, Two and a Half Men) as Sazz, Charles' ebullient stunt double; and comedy royalty Tina Fey (Saturday Night Live) as Cinda Canning, host of the trio's favourite podcast and their subsequent rival.

Only Murders in the Building

Also in a very prominent role is the prolific and beloved Nathan Lane (Charlie Lawrence, George and Martha, Penny Dreadful: City of Angels) as Teddy Dimas, Oliver's longtime friend and sponsor who hides a shady past. Perennial comedy favourite Jackie Hoffman (Feud: Bette and Joan, Grease: Rise of the Pink Ladies) plays the Arconia's resident battleaxe, Uma, best friend of the ferocious building manager Bunny, played by Jayne Houdyshell (Law & Order: SVU, American Odyssey). The series also enjoys having celebrities play themselves, with Sting appearing as a grouchy Arconian in the first season, before Amy Schumer takes over his apartment in the second.

Recurring throughout the series are some particular favourite characters, including the dramatic, cat-loving sweater enthusiast Howard, played by Michael Cyril Crichton (Jack in the Box, Graves); and the unstoppable police detective Donna Williams, played by the wonderful Da'Vine Joy Randolph (The Last O.G, The Idol). The trio are followed around by their own pack of loyal podcast fans, who include Ali Stroker (The Glee Project, Echoes), Jaboukie Young-White (The Daily Show, Strange World) and Daniel Oreskes (Law & Order).

Only Murders in the Building

The first season is expertly constructed, with writing, acting and direction coming together to slowly resolve a full picture of both Tim Kono's murder and another linked mystery buried in the Arconia's past. While every episode is excellent, it's the seventh, “The Boy from 6B” that stands out as a truly exquisite and groundbreaking hour of television. Throughout the season, we have learned that Teddy's son Theo is linked to the mystery. Both the character and the actor behind him, James Caverly (Chicago Med) are profoundly deaf, and Theo's slight remove from the rest of the Arconia's residents gives him a unique perspective. “The Boy from 6B” focuses on him, being told almost entirely without audible dialogue or even ambient noise. While there are many episodes throughout the series told from an individual character's perspective, this one is a truly remarkable experience, a rare example of television not only showing the deaf experience, but also crafted in close collaboration with a deaf actor.

Each of the show's three seasons deals with a murder case, ending with a cliffhanger that leads into the next season. In fact, just to make things especially tantalising, the first episode began with a cliffhanger – a flash-forward to the last episode of the season, where it was reprised with context. The trio may have rapidly gained fans due to their podcast, but they're also barely tolerated by the police, and a virtually held responsible for the continual murders that they stumble upon.

The second season, while never as strong as the first, still delivers a gripping mystery with plenty of humour and heart. It focuses heavily on the battle of the podcasts, with Fey's Cinda Canning playing a greater part, along with new characters. Adina Verson (The Strain) portrays Cinda's emotionally abused assistant Poppy, while Michael Rappaport (Atypical, Prison Break) brings all his New York grouch to Detective Kreps. The superstar role is filled by Cara Delevingne (Carnival Row, American Horror Story) as Alice Banks, a charming but manipulative artist who becomes Mabel's love interest.

While Mabel's past was explored in depth in the first season, in the second there's an increased focus on both Charles and Oliver's. Charles, in particular, is forced to open up, when his almost-stepdaughter Lucy turns up. Actress Zoe Colletti (Fear the Walking Dead, Rubicon) and Martin share excellent chemistry, and Lucy's presence opens up Charles' character. Plus, we get to hear plenty of Charles' hit single, “Angel in Flip-Flops” (the full music video is available to enjoy on YouTube). Meanwhile, when Brazzos is revived, he is reunited with his make-up artist Joy, a long-running love interest. Joy is played by the scene-stealing Andrea Martin (My Big Fat Greek Life). (She's no relation to Steve Martin, but she is linked to Martin Short – they were once brother-and-sister-in-law.)

Only Murders in the Building

The series is, throughout, very theatrical, cutting from real events to imagined scenarios and thoughtspaces presented using techniques that come straight from the Broadway stage. The third season leans into this completely, bringing Oliver's career back from the brink as he revives an obscure murder mystery play for the stage. The superstar contingent is maxed out when Meryl Streep joins his cast as Loretta Durkin, a struggling actress in the twilight of her career; and Paul Rudd portrays the play's star, Ben Glenroy, an obnoxious Hollywood heartthrob best known as the ridiculous superhero “CoBro” (he has cobra powers, of course).

When Ben is murdered (and even this is far twistier and more opaque than we're used to), the play is almost derailed, until Oliver decides to revitalise it as a musical. While never quite hitting the highs of the first season, the third comes close, bringing the cut-throat world of Broadway musical onto the screen. While we wait for Steve Martin to unleash his vocal talents again (you'll not get the Pickwick Triplets song out of your head quickly), we have impressive new supporting characters. Jesse Williams (Grey's Anatomy, Station 19) brings class to the unfortunately-named Tobert, a documentary-shooter and Mabel's latest love interest, while Jeremy Shamos (Dead Ringers, Better Call Saul) engenders great sympathy as Ben's brother Dickie. We even get Matthew Broderick as this season's celebrity guest, performing an exquisite act of character assassination on himself.

After three seasons, Only Murders in the Building shows no signs of slowing down; a fourth season has been confirmed for next year. This is reassuring, as Steve Martin has indicated that Charles-Haden Savage will be his final role. It looks like, after his long and remarkable career, Martin is finally ready to retire, once his last, great creation has run its course. Then again, he's said similar things before...

Published on October 24th, 2023. Written by Daniel Tessier for Television Heaven.

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