Though It’s a Charming Whodunit, ‘Only Murders in the Building’ had the Potential to Be More

A still from 'Only murders in the Building'. Mabel (Selena Gomez), Oliver (Martin Short) and Charles (Steve Martin) are shown in midshot, all centred looking towards a site off-screen that is clearly horrific. They all stand with their mouths agape. You can see very little of their background but it is presumably an apartment building.

The first episode of the Hulu original television series Only Murders in the Building opens with narration from each of its three lead characters, each of whom deliver a monologue about their own unique relationship with their beguiling Manhattan borough. There’s Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin), a washed-up actor best known for playing a private eye in a fictional crime television series from the late 1980s, who begins this trade by expressing a lackadaisical sort of comfort with his long-time home as he breezily strolls through the sunny streets of a routine walk, baffled by outside notions of how dangerous the city is when he knows that the true locations of unnoticed crime are sparsely-populated rural areas rather than streetside city alleyways. Then, after a humorously on-the-nose insertion of the lyric, “Did a full one-eighty / Crazy” from the song ‘Don’t Start Now’ by Dua Lipa, arrives Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez), noticeably more reserved than her much older predecessor, bound in tight jeans, a bolero jacket, and headphones, absorbed in whatever is preoccupying her in her cell phone. Her opening statement so too sharply juxtaposes that which came before, claiming with blunt monotony, “New York is a fucking lot.” Finally, as practically the inverse of this put-upon pessimism, Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), who has clearly been enraptured by local art scenes for decades on end, imbues his speech with nostalgic gaiety, whimsically reflecting on a dance piece he recalls having recently seen, during which the central performer repeatedly ascends a flight of stairs, then falls off, only to ride from a trampoline onto the steps once again—a fitting metaphor, he believes, for his experiences in the city. 

If such well-trodden interpretations of New York as a perpetual muse seem rehearsed, it’s because, to an extent, they are—by the end of this episode, Charles can be heard repeating his very first words into a microphone that records him, all while receiving critical feedback from Oliver on his enunciation. Though these characters’ radically different takes on their home may exist in opposition to each other, Charles, Oliver, and Mabel are all bound together by two things: one, their apartment building (what else for a story set in New York?), the Arconia, which Charles makes clear is as much of a character in the show as the residents that inhabit it; and two, the bloody death of Tim Kono, of whom little is known and even less is well-regarded. Though the case is initially determined by the police to be a straightforward suicide, the three characters all suspect there to be further depth in Tim’s passing than is initially apparent, their shared literacy in true crime podcasts bringing them together at the time of evacuation from the premises. In fact, the trio is so engrossed in their shared project of solving the mystery at hand that they even create their own podcast, which shares the name of the show itself, revealing the details of what the group is certain has to be murder as they uncover new evidence themselves.

Only Murders in the Building operates with the flair of a good mystery novel: oddball pop cultural references both fictional and otherwise; a half-dozen red herrings, with higher-priority suspects hiding in plain sight; a central victim with criminal involvement with far deeper roots than is first suspected; and, most importantly, an idiosyncratic cast of characters to enliven to banter and keep the story moving at a brisk pace. While every character met in the building proves interesting no matter the role they play in solving the case, the central threesome’s peripheral connection to impromptu detective work makes for characters that have instant comedic chemistry with one another. 

A still from 'Only murders in the building'. Charles (Steve Martin), Oliver (Martin Short) and Mabel (Selena Gomez) are all stood in a wooden elevator, seemlingly ignoring each other. Charles is a man in his early 60s, black wool jacket, glasses, trilby hat, carrying a brown paper bag. Oliver is a similar age but much shorter, wearing a blue blazer and purple scarf, carrying three large postal boxes. Mabel is young, in her late 20s, wearing all mustard tones: fur jacket, beanie, sunglasses and big headphones.

The part of Oliver makes for arguably the most difficult mantle of the trio to master, as he is handily the character who commands the screen with the most unbridled enthusiasm. However, Martin Short plays this role with a natural sense of panache that almost makes the task look easy, bursting with theatrical exuberance while taking care to never over embellish a self-centeredness that could’ve been played for caricature in the hands of a lesser actor. Steve Martin as Charles serves as an excellent foil, too, his characteristic good-natured humility carrying a poised maturity when he is given space later in the series to reveal his vulnerabilities outside of the case. Even Selena Gomez fares well as Mabel, for even though she displays significantly less emotive range than her elders (her struggles to project more strenuous expressions of sadness or anger are consistently visible), the more rigid aloofness she displays subtly accentuates the reservations her character feels towards gaining more familiarity with a murder in which she may have played an indirect role. 

What’s most impressive about the show’s characterisation is that the comedic emphasis placed on the generational gap between Mabel and her older counterparts, while varying in its degrees of success, does actually nail some of its punchlines. While pithy one-liners like Mabel’s offhand remark that, as old white guys, the only thing Charles and Oliver have to fear is “colon cancer and societal change,” feel inorganic in their forced sloganeering, the jokes that highlight the characters’ most distinct personalities traits, such as when Charles sends Mabel an overly formal text enthusiastically greeting her, land with remarkable composure.

Yet these instances of momentary comedic levity only render the show’s fundamental premise a more pronounced matter of wasted potential. Only Murders in the Building seems to be keenly aware of the storytelling landscape in which it operates, a market in which stories abstractly waxing poetic about the social and artistic sustenance found in the elusive New York are oversaturated to the point of blunting the impact of even a charming one such as this show. Oliver’s aspirations as a theatre director, a medium that, while given a space to thrive in New York thanks to the existence of Broadway, has already been made that much more fractured and commercialised in the current era, have hindered his prospects more often than they have helped. In a clever subversion of the rhapsodic perspective with which Oliver recalls his memories as a younger industry figurehead (supposedly), his artistic visions often result in bloated budgets and forgone productions that serve to make his sense of pompousness that much more hollow, and, as a result, that much funnier. However, for as witty as these spins an a popular formula can prove, the show does not display any willingness to engage in a broader, more holistic deconstruction of such a distinct archetype as the flighty, eccentric artist that Oliver represents, instead simply repeating such sentimental notions while ostensibly poking fun at them.

Even more glaring in the wake of this observation is the similar negligence the show directs towards the other unique component of its premise, the true crime genre. With the show’s more lightweight, jocular approach to its subject matter, why the true crime market was even incorporated into the show’s hook is a question that largely goes uninterrogated throughout the series, and, as a result, makes the decision to so heavily emphasis its place in the story seem like that much more of a plea for relevance, which is clearly not a necessity when considering all of the show’s impressive core strengths. While a few jokes about the indignity of courting show sponsorships and the once again overcrowded nature of such subject matter do make a welcome addition to the show’s repertoire of comedic material, that seems to be the only depth with which Only Murders in the Building consistently reckons with how the commercialisation of unsolved, ignored, and often graphic depictions of real events impacts how individual people engage and cope with death when they have to face its reality. 

A still from 'Only Murders in the Building'. Mabel (Selena Gomez) is shown just off centre, in a mid-shot, walking through the streets of Manhattan. She is confident in her stride, a young woman in her late 20s. She wears plaid trousers, a yellow jumper, mustard fur coat, dark hair, big orange headphones a yellow beanie and tinted sunglasses.

A sequence during which Oliver imagines interrogating his suspects as if he were casting roles in one of his stage productions does provide humour in his frustrated reactions to various “audition” performances, but that even a character with a viewpoint as at times myopic as his understands the murder of a neighbour as blatantly a means of profit, both in the moment and throughout the greater story, reads as transparent in its cynicism. Even the show’s most consistent reference to outside material dealing with solving murder cases is not any content oriented towards true crime, but Franklin W. Dixon’s middle-grade novel series The Hardy Boys, from which Mabel derives a name for her childhood fixation with untangling imaginary mysteries, making that much more apparent the show’s reluctance to resolve a tension between the spectacle of death as it is presented as entertainment in true crime material and the real murder with which the characters have to interact in their daily lives.

This point of conflict is brought to the show’s attention during episode six, ‘To Protect and Serve,’ by the presence of a police officer who reveals the toll witnessing even innocent children being murdered takes on her psyche. However, not only does this decision place this otherwise sympathetic position in the hands of a detective who works for a police department, a job that places its occupants in a position of punitive power that is used to exacerbate existing injustices and quell rebellion, but it also makes a Black woman its delivery mechanism, seemingly unaware of the galling irony in doing so when the violence police officers direct specifically towards Black people has been well-documented by the protests that preceded this show’s premiere just one year ago. This lack of awareness towards the often gendered and/or racialised aspect to so much of the material that produces true crime content extends to the primary cast as well: though the show’s first episode demonstrates Mabel narrating a nightmare she frequently has during which she is forced to stab an intruder, this point is only ever articulated again when she confronts a stranger for whom her hypervigilance immediately dissipates upon realising that the person is a friend from her past.

These flaws certainly do not become invasive when watching Only Murders in the Building. On the strength of its cast alone, the show displays a brilliant spontaneity and reason to return to episode after episode, a familiarity that is only enhanced by its oftentimes hilarious sense of comedic timing. This imbalance between the show’s assets and its lack of a clear purpose, however, leaves a more dulled impact than if the show had chosen to utilise its evidently high ambitions to further deconstruct its conceit beyond a revolving door of regular punchlines. That being said, that the show has already been renewed for a second season invites an even greater wealth of promise now that the series has established its own merits. With more room to breathe, perhaps Only Murders in the Building will fully embrace its satirical impulses.

Only Murders in the Building is available to watch in the US on Hulu and in the UK on Star on Disney+ now

by Claire Davidson

Claire Davidson (she/they) is a writer and actor currently living in Georgia. She enjoys examining fiction from all lenses, whether it be performing it, writing it, or deconstructing it in criticism or analysis. Some favourite movies include Eighth Grade and Alice Doesn’t Live Here Anymore. Claire can be found posting essays-in-miniature on Letterboxd and posting almost nothing on Twitter @loneclaire.

1 reply »

  1. I have to say I find the show completely enjoyable. Sometimes I don’t want drama and definitely pretty over police/fire shows – this is different and refreshing for when you just want something light. Your criticisms are valid though and I get them and how they can makes someone feel – and I hate saying silliness like ‘oh I just overlook all that’ as I don’t, but again, for me personally, it’s just for when I don’t want seriousness for 30 minutes in a day sometimes. which I guess sadly is me saying just that silliness I just quoted – honestly sometimes I just find myself in that ‘rock & hard place’ moment and don’t know how to get out of it.


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