ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING – Season One

only murders in the building (2021)
Three strangers who share an obsession with true crime suddenly find themselves caught up in one.
4 out of 5 stars

Only Murders in the Building is a 10-episode limited series created by John Hoffman and Steve Martin that dips into a variety of genres. Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez star as three neighbours living in a luxury New York apartment building brought together by their shared love of true crime podcasts. After coming to believe a murder’s been carried out in their Upper West Side building, the trio launch their own podcast with the goal being to track down the murderer.

The Hulu series (available on Disney+ Star in the UK) parodies the crime genre without becoming a spoof. Whilst it’s filled with meta references and stereotypes associated with audio series about killers, it never mocks the genre or their audiences. It might appear to be a crime-comedy-caper on the surface, but deep down it’s a tale of friendship and loneliness.

Steve Martin plays has-been TV actor Charles-Haden Savage, who appears to have lived alone for decades. Martin Short is foolhardy theatre director Oliver Putnam, a pretentious and overly dramatic older man struggling to pay his bills. The much-loved comedy duo brings the likability and dynamic one would expect to their outcast characters. Martin pokes fun at Short’s pretentiousness, Short laughs at Martin’s fading fame… but despite the jibes, you don’t stop rooting for them.

Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) is the ‘straight man’ to the finely-honed capers of the comedy duo. Although the former Disney star feels slightly out of place, she does a good job balancing out their brand of humour. She’s the character with the most secrets, refusing to reveal how she ended up living in such a luxurious building at such a young age. Perhaps giving her the most expansive backstory was a mistake, however, as all you’ll want to do is spend more time with Martin and Short. While certainly talented, Gomez clearly lacks the dynamism and charisma to keep up with her co-leads.

Only Murder in the Building is the perfect autumn comfort show, especially for those who like to get their teeth into a good ‘whodunnit’. The series is set in a Nora Ephron-style version of New York that seems eternally autumnal with falling leaves and characters wearing stylish knitwear, all played out against a kitschy soundtrack. Despite having a charming rom-com set-up, the pilot opens on a bloodied Mabel leaning over a dead body. She promises it’s not what you think, and we immediately jump back in time to learn why.

This in media res trick, also used by The White Lotus and How to Get Away with Murder, immediately lets us know that there’s a crime drama at the heart of this 30-minute comedy. After a security alarm forces them out of their homes, the three strangers’ bond in a local cafe over a fictional true-crime podcast, All is Not OK (hosted by Tina Fey’s Cinda Canning). When someone ends up dead in their building, dismissed as a suicide by the police (the lead officer played by an underused Da’Vine Joy Randolph), they decide to investigate it themselves.

The show centres around their own amateur investigation, which involves picking locks, rummaging through neighbour’s trash, and interviewing staff about the victim. The investigation soon falls into comic incompetence, from suspected rockstar cameos to a bit involving a dead cat in a freezer. The comedy never evolves from gentle caper, but when executed by two masters of the genre it’s impossible not to like. Only Murders in the Building smartly blends playful comedy that harkens back to Woody Allen films from the 1970s and 1980s with the modern obsession of breaking the boundaries of others in the name of making media.

Once you think you know what you’re getting, Only Murders in the Building twists things. The dialogue-free seventh episode, all told from the perspective of the deaf character, Theo Dimas (played by the deaf actor, James Caverly), is a masterpiece of writing and performance. Using just music, hand gestures, and subtitled silent dialogue, this is probably the most important episode from a narrative standpoint. It’s an unexpectedly bold move from a comforting dramedy, quickly losing the tweeness of the opening episode.

Most of the action takes place in The Arconia building. Like a college residential building, the luxe flats have a communal feel where every inhabitant seems to know the business of the other. We meet the doorman and the building manager over the series, slowly learning about the inner workings through chance meetings, community gatherings and private conversations in lifts. This fictional building is almost the fourth character of the miniseries, looming over the trio and their lives.

Production designer Curt Beech and set decorator Rich Murray have ensured that every apartment is unique. Every room we enter is like learning a bit more about the character, precisely lit and decorated, from Mabel’s empty lot to Charles’ cleanly wallpapered room, and Oliver’s remote-controlled fireplace. The wardrobe also burrows deeper into every character, helping audiences try to play armchair detective and uncover more about the trio through their design choices.

Only Murders in the Building is a gentle homage to both the crime genre and New York City. On top of being a comedy caper about true crime aficionados, it investigates how the past affects the present and how there’s always more to people than it seems. While the trio is trying to hide from their past, it’s clear it’s not getting to be easy or healthy for them.

USA | 2021 | 10 EPISODES | 1.85:1 | COLOUR | ENGLISH AMERICAN SIGN LANGUAGE

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Cast & Crew

writers: Steve Martin, John Hoffman, Kirker Butler, Ben Smith, Kristin Newman, Thembi L. Banks, Madeleine George, Kim Rosenstock, Stephen Markley, Ben Philippe, Matteo Borghese, Rob Turbovsky & Rachel Burger.
directors: Jamie Babbit, Gillian Robespierre, Don Scardino & Cherien Dabis.
starring: Steve Martin, Martin Short, Selena Gomez, Aaron Dominguez & Amy Ryan.

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