True crime, podcasting and old-school comedy romps are an unlikely trio in Hulu’s newest murder-mystery, “Only Murders in the Building.” Dreamed up by comedy legend Steve Martin, this screamingly funny take on New York City life is both a parody of true crime and podcasting and a great fictional true crime story, perfect for your next podcast.
Like its inspirations, the series, starring Martin, longtime collaborator Martin Short and ex-Disney pop princess Selena Gomez, also begins as the story of an unlikely trio.
Like its inspirations, the series, starring Martin, longtime collaborator Martin Short and ex-Disney pop princess Selena Gomez, also begins as the story of an unlikely trio: lonely city dwellers in one of New York’s famed Upper West Side residential hotels. The three are brought together when a fellow apartment dweller, Tim Kono (Julian Cihi), is murdered in the building. The NYPD says it’s a suicide, but these murder aficionados know a suspicious death when they see one. Being fans of true crime podcasts, and this being the 2020s, the three do the only logical thing and launch their own audio investigation as they round up a building full of suspects.
Even though audio dramas have existed since the advent of radio, the podcasting craze was spurred by the popularity of iPods and then iPhones and the rebranding of the format to reflect the new devices on which we listen to them. While some of the most popular are (surprise, surprise) produced by longtime radio production houses like NPR, it seems like everyone and their neighbor has tried their hand at launching podcasts in the last few years, especially during the pandemic lockdowns. (Full disclosure: I am one of those who launched podcasts in the last two years. THINK is, too.) This DIY radio drama movement, with people recording homegrown stories in closets and bathtubs, was ripe for a satirical look at its creators, especially the leading true crime format, which, like all good detective stories, helps create the illusion of order out of chaos.
Martin and co-writer John Hoffman (“Grace and Frankie”) have created an at-times biting parody of the ridiculousness of creating content, from the incongruity of sponsorships to the cluelessness of those investigating the crime. Those who have tried their hands at creating their own podcasts (or even just listen to them) might wince in recognition at the pointed jokes about music, voiceovers and release schedules, but that’s only because it’s all so on point.
The series also takes pleasure in the episodic format. (Hulu’s release model is to drop the first three episodes as a batch before switching to weekly installments, and the pacing reflects that.) The installments run in the 30-minute range, and each half-hour brings new recurring theatrical motifs to fit the different podcast episodes the trio is supposedly recording. (The podcast episodes don’t exactly correspond one to one with each installment, but the erratic releases are part of the running gag.) Between the auditions, musical numbers and random monologues, “Only Murders in the Building” winds up as much a series for Broadway and theater enthusiasts as it is for true crime fans. And when the murder isn’t quite enough to keep the momentum going, the actors switch gears, leaning in hard to their New York City setting and gorgeously unaffordable real estate backdrops until the show re-finds its footing.
“Only Murders in the Building” winds up as much a series for Broadway and theater enthusiasts as it is for true crime fans.
Martin and Short have a long history as a comedy duo, dating to the 1980s. But this is their first scripted project together in years and only Martin’s second foray into television. Happily, their chemistry hasn’t changed one iota. Martin plays Charles, a down-on-his-luck actor who hasn’t had a hit since he starred in a police procedural in the 1990s. Short is a Broadway producer who went bankrupt when his musical flopped. The two make a perfect pair of aging would-be stars desperate for one more shot at fame.
But the series’ real revelation is Gomez, whose teen celebrity status probably precedes her in the minds of many. As Mabel, the semi-femme fatale who knows more about the murder than she’s letting on, Gomez has a much heavier lift than her male counterparts. Unlike them, she’s not in her wheelhouse, and she is playing very much against type. She’s also saddled with some of the least sparkling dialogue, which at times (hopefully deliberately) crosses into dime-store-novel tripe. And yet she carries the series, giving it a center of gravity around which both older actors can orbit.
The show’s secret weapon, as in any good comedy, is the pathos behind the jokes. From the cat-loving neighbor whose favorite feline has passed away to Nathan Lane cameos to 1980s-era rocker Sting, who plays himself, the series has a ball auditioning a long list of possible killers. But this is also a story about the loneliness of living in small boxes, of strangers who pass in the hall who never speak, and of the need for human connection that a shared interest can spark — even when that interest involves sitting alone in your rooms, listening to the same podcast on different devices.
“Only Murders in the Building” may be poking fun at those desperate for a viral hit in an overstuffed entertainment landscape. But it’s also clearly trying to do the same, making it a meta-commentary on its own ambitions. Perhaps the show will get lucky and become another point of human connection, with pandemic-weary viewers discussing who killed Tim Kono on social media. Either way, it’s a worthy entry in the bid to entertain us.