Only Murders in the Building: a killer whodunnit-satire trapped by its sitcom sensibilities.
We begin as many true-crime stories do: in medias res as one character kneels before a freshly dead body, claiming to her flustered companions “it’s not what you think”. It’s the kind of genre touchstone that ultimately defines Only Murders in the Building: an occasionally ambitious and tightly-plotted true crime thriller set in an insular Upper West Side apartment building that, so far, has failed to capture my attention beyond its admittedly intriguing premise and the outstanding synergy between its three stars.
In an original story devised by Steve Martin and producer John Hoffman, three neighbours are brought together by the death of a young man in their building and their mutual obsession with true-crime podcasts. Convinced that the case is not the open-and-shut suicide the police proclaim it to be, the trio begin investigating the case themselves while recording their very own podcast, entitled … well, you know.
Tying these three leads together is a story that’s true to its roots in both structure and style whilst also attempting to upend its own genre’s conventions. It’s a balance the show doesn’t always quite strike, but when it does it elevates an already entertaining piece of true-crime shenanigans. Structurally, Only Murders is beholden to the twists and turns required by the genre, and those twists come at break-neck speed. That keeps the plot skipping along with a satisfying drip-feed of new evidence and suspects, but often to the detriment of the show, as it leaves very little time to explore the interior lives of the characters beyond perhaps a date, or a singular family member. The cast centres around truly the oddest comedic trio I’ve enjoyed in a long while: veteran comedians and longtime collaborators Steve Martin and Martin Short have joined forces with global megastar Selena Gomez. It simply shouldn’t work, and yet, it absolutely does. Fans of Martin and Short will be unsurprised to find that their dynamic remains much unchanged from that of their earlier works: namely Father of the Bride (1991). In Only Murders, Martin plays isolated skeptic Charles, an actor in the regresses of fame opposite Short’s wonderfully pretentious, debt-ridden “off-off-Broadway” director Oliver. Interrupting this decades-old dynamic is Gomez’s droll, high-fashion twenty-something Mabel: a character initially defined by millennial boredom and a constant low-grade depression but masking a mysterious past somehow connected to the aforementioned murder in the building.
“The cast centres around truly the oddest comedic trio I’ve enjoyed in a long while…”
Simply pairing these two soulful boomers with the laconic side-eye of a young woman creates an exceedingly charming chemistry at the core of the show. A classic dysfunctional threesome is quickly established as the trio zip around their building and the rest of NYC with comic incompetency, from accusing the musician Sting of murder to a surprisingly grim scene involving a frozen feline corpse, all of which is bolstered by a very game supporting cast lead by Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan, plus a witty script that’s darker than you might be expecting. Not all of the jokes land: some lazy gags just boil down to “old people attempt to understand technology” or “Steve Martin can’t relate to millennials”. Still, fans of the actors involved (myself included) will find enough to persevere.
And those who do will be rewarded with a set of surprising and inventive episodes late in the game. The latest episode, for example, centres around new character Theo Dimas – son of the podcast’s main sponsor Teddy Dimas – and unfolds without any sound or dialogue for almost the entire runtime due to Theo being deaf. It’s an opportunity seized with great aplomb by newcomer James Caverly and such expressive actors like Lane and Short. The show really shines when it leans hard into its ability to address and dismantle the tropes associated with this type of story; while also feeling new and exciting. Unfortunately, the first string of episodes are almost entirely without invention, leaving the opening act of the season rather lacklustre. In sum, despite its engaging story and delightful cast, Only Murders won’t survive without constant innovation and reinvention. Resting on its laurels is simply not an option. Still, with all those experienced creative minds behind the wheel and performers that are genuinely giving their best, I can honestly say that I look forward to seeing what comes next…