Only Murders in the Building, the true crime parody cum actual murder mystery show co-created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman, opens with a Charles-Haden Savage (Martin) voiceover about living in the city. “As any true crime aficionado will tell you,” he says, “it’s the boondocks you need to worry about.” Immediately, my true crime aficionado brain went offline as the long list of urban serial killers unspooled in my mind: Dahmer, Nilsen, the Wests, Holmes, Jack the Ripper, Gacy, if you count the suburbs, just to name a few. Why did I get so stuck on this seemingly innocuous point? Because Only Murders is a show about true crime, and true crime aficionados, and true crime podcasts, and people who listen to true crime podcasts, and it immediately gets a fundamental facet of true crime wrong. It made me a little suspicious of the show itself, made me wonder if Martin, Hoffman, and the team behind Only Murders really understand the appeal of true crime. Four episodes in, I’m not sure they do, but I also know it doesn’t matter. Only Murders is dressed in the trappings of parody, but it is, in fact, just a good old-fashioned murder mystery show. It’s Murder, She Wrote if Jessica Fletcher was incompetent.
The building in question is the Arconia, a classic pre-war building on New York’s Upper West Side. Charles, a once-successful actor best known for playing a cop on TV, lives there, as does Oliver (Martin Short), a theater director fallen on hard times after his stage adaptation of Splash went belly-up following a Spider-Man: Into the Dark-style incident (would watch an entire show about that, too). Newer to the building is Mabel (Selena Gomez), who is “renovating” her “aunt’s” apartment. Everything about Mabel comes with air quotes because it quickly becomes clear that while Charles and Oliver are pretty much exactly who they seem to be, Mabel is keeping a LOT of secrets. The three neighbors are thrust together during a fire alarm and discover they all listen to the same true crime podcast. When one of their fellow Arconia residents is found dead, they decide to begin investigating, despite the death appearing as a suicide.
As a parody of true crime and podcasts, Only Murders feels a little mean-spirited. Again, not sure anyone involved has real affection for either of those things. (Affection for a subject is not required, but a parody without affection can quickly become mean.) But as a murder mystery, Only Murders shines. The deceased, Tim Kono (Julian Cihi), was not particularly likeable and maybe also shady. Though his death appears cut and dry, his shadiness and sketchy business deals provide some people, including fellow Arconia resident Sting, potential motive to kill him. Charles, Oliver, and Mabel set out to discover the truth, but the real mystery is Mabel and her connection to Tim Kono. They knew each other ten years before, when another of their friends died under mysterious circumstances, sending a potentially innocent man to jail. It’s a mystery within a mystery!
As you would expect from a show co-created and co-written by Steve Martin, the writing is snappy and observant. Martin has a wonderful ear for dialogue, and Only Murders is full of the everyday, crushing interactions he specializes in as a storyteller. Whether it’s Oliver begging his grown son for money, a stranger unloading personal problems onto Charles on the street, or the difference between Mabel ten years ago and Mabel now, the show is loaded with scenes that teeter between painful and funny, and that gives every actor great material to chew on. Short hasn’t been this good since Inherent Vice, and Gomez has never been better. Her bored deadpan is a perfect contrast to Short’s excitable energy, with Martin caught somewhere in between as Charles, a man who knows he is stuck in a rut but is reluctant to leave the rut’s safety.
Though I remain mystified that a show at least in part about true crime doesn’t seem to account for the plethora of urban serial killers, Only Murders in the Building is a great mystery show unto itself. It looks great—the Arconia provides some serious real estate porn—the writing is great, the acting is great, so far, the pacing is perfect. The true crime podcast angle feels like something included more to help sell the pitch than a necessary part of the story, but the story itself so good that hardly matters. The mystery of Tim Kono—and of Mabel and Tim Kono—is compelling, and watching these characters bumble their way through it is entertaining. This is not cozy comfort viewing, it’s a little too sad and/or cutting in places for that, but Only Murders is a sharp, witty take on a locked-door mystery.
Only Murders in the Building airs Tuesdays on Hulu in the US, and on Disney+ Star internationally.