Why “Only Murders in the Building” Is the Only Murder Mystery You Need This Fall

Steve Martin's new Hulu series satirizes true-crime shows while also serving as a compelling whodunit

September 14, 2021 7:17 am
Selena Gomez, Steve Martin and Martin Short in "Only Murders in the Building"
Selena Gomez, Steve Martin and Martin Short in "Only Murders in the Building"
Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

The thing about true-crime shows, whether they’re streaming docuseries like Netflix’s Making a Murderer or podcasts like the massively popular Serial, is that the truer they are, the more upsetting they tend to be. We live in disturbing times to begin with — thanks to a deadly pandemic that has wiped out millions across the globe, ongoing political turmoil and the looming threat of climate disaster — and learning all the lurid details about gross miscarriages of justice or people getting chopped up and cannibalized by their neighbors on top of all the regular nightmares we hear about on the news can often feel like a bit too much.

Perhaps that’s why, in recent years, we’ve seen a resurgence of goofy whodunits that allow viewers to get sucked into a mystery without having to digest any real-life horrors. Why sit through another Ted Bundy series when we can listen to Daniel Craig do an insane Foghorn Leghorn accent while interrogating an ensemble cast in a comparatively low-stakes comedy like Knives Out? The latest example of lighthearted murder mystery comes from Steve Martin, who stars alongside Martin Short and Selena Gomez in Hulu’s excellent Only Murders in the Building — and if you haven’t started watching yet, there’s still time to get caught up before the 10-episode season wraps up next month.

The series follows a trio of hapless true-crime obsessives who live in the fictional, elegant Upper West Side building The Arconia and bond over their shared love of the same podcast (hosted hilariously by Tina Fey). Martin plays Charles Haden-Savage, a washed-up actor who starred in a cop show back in the ’70s and now finds himself struggling to repress his loneliness after a recent breakup. Short steals just about every scene he’s in as Oliver Putnam, a has-been Broadway director is now in massive debt after a failed stage adaptation of Splash, and Selena Gomez keeps them in check as Mabel Mora, the show’s resident young person, who claims she’s staying at her aunt’s apartment to renovate it. When tragedy strikes in their building and their neighbor Tim Kono is found dead of an apparent self-inflicted gunshot wound, the three of them decide that there’s something more sinister afoot and take it upon themselves to investigate the incident as a murder, recording their own true-crime podcast about it along the way.

The show is, above all, a spot-on genre parody, and even if you’re not particularly interested in finding out who killed Tim Kono, the comedy alone should be a selling point. Martin and Short are both extremely self-aware about the fact that they’re rich white men of a certain age playing against a millennial, BIPOC woman, and they lean into their cluelessness here for laughs. There are details about Mabel that make it obvious she was written by a 76-year-old man — like, say, the fact that her name is Mabel and she and her friends owned every Hardy Boys novel as kids — but they’re addressed and explained away, and for the most part, she’s the calm, collected foil to Charles and Oliver. In one scene, she looks on horrified while Oliver tries to explain how to compliment a woman’s appearance in the year 2021 without being creepy. (Ultimately, he decides it’s best to compliment her purse because “if it isn’t on their body, you can like it.” “No, to every word that’s coming out of your mouth,” she responds.) After she teaches Charles that he doesn’t need to sign his text messages in an earlier episode, the gag is reprised later in the series when Oliver, upon finding that someone has poisoned his dog, texts “THE KILLER CAME FOR MY FAMILY. Love, Oliver.”

But even aside from the self-aware humor about the generation gap, a cameo from Sting or silly interludes like Martin Short singing “dips for dinner, dips for dinner, I’m a nut for dips” to himself while shoving entire containers of hummus into his pockets at Tim Kono’s memorial, the mystery at the center of Only Murders in the Building is surprisingly compelling. As we learn more about Mabel, we find out Tim was a childhood friend of hers, that he may or may not have been involved in some shady dealings involving stolen jewels, and that she and Tim both witnessed another murder — of their friend Zoe, who was thrown off a roof — 10 years ago. The show’s extremely well-paced, revealing just enough new information with each episode to keep us hooked but not enough for us to have a confident guess as to who Tim’s killer is just yet. A flash-forward in the first episode showed Mabel covered in blood, kneeling over the body of a man wearing a tie-dyed hoodie and insisting “It’s not what you think.” Last week’s episode featured a throwaway line from Charles about a “Tie-Dye Guy” being a possible suspect, and it wrapped with a glimpse of someone in a tie-dye hoodie tailing Mabel and another flash-forward to Tina Fey’s star podcast host teasing a new true-crime series about our three leads, noting that Charles and his “true-crime fan buddies took a second chance and became the subject of our next investigation.”

A second season is reportedly already in the works (so we should have plenty of time to figure out what exactly that “second chance” entails), and things are clearly starting to escalate in this one. There’s a clever attention to detail here that makes the mystery a fun one to try to crack, and it warrants repeat viewings of each episode. (If you remembered that the body we see for a split second in the first episode was wearing tie-dye without having go back and rewatch, congratulations, you’re a better detective than I am.) According to co-creator Josh Hoffman, the beautifully animated opening credits — which change slightly with every episode — also provide some hidden clues for keen-eyed viewers to pick up on. Just don’t Google “who is Tie-Dye Guy” and ruin it for yourself; some paparazzi photos of the show filming in New York that recently surfaced online contain spoilers as to that character’s identity.

No matter who the culprit winds up being, Only Murders in the Building is an addictive and entertaining ride that toes the line between satirizing murder mysteries and presenting us with an extremely well-executed murder plot of its own. It’s perfect for if you’re burnt out on hearing about grisly real-life tales of rape and dismemberment but still want to be able to brag to your friends about figuring out who the killer was before the big reveal — assuming, of course, that you’re able to.

New episodes of Only Murders in the Building are added every Tuesday on Hulu. Episode 5 goes live on Sept. 14.

The InsideHook Newsletter.

News, advice and insights for the most interesting person in the room.