The central characters of Hulu’s wonderful new comedy Only Murders in the Building, these three would know all about that. They are neighbors in an expensive Manhattan apartment complex who’ve never had much to say to one another until discovering two things in rapid succession: One, that they are all hooked on the same true-crime podcast (the Serial-esque All Is Not Okay In Oklahoma, whose host is played by Tina Fey); and two, that the death of a fellow neighbor may not be the suicide cops have written it off to be. So, the trio decide to combine their creative skills — Oliver is an unemployable theater director, Charles the has-been star of a Nineties cop show called Brazzos, and Mabel an artist looking for purpose while she renovates her aunt’s apartment — with their love of the genre to become amateur sleuths, and perhaps viral superstars.
The premise of Only Murders is elegantly, addictively simple. If creators Steve Martin(*) and John Hoffman were content just to play it for laughs, making fun of true-crime podcasts and the people who obsess over them, it would already be one of this year’s greatest TV delights. Between the podcast-specific comedy (an exasperated cop, played by Da’Vine Joy Randolph, responds to their questions by asking, “Goddammit, what fucking podcast are y’all hooked on?”); the insults hurled between Charles and Oliver (Oliver compares Charles’ podcast narration to “a Ken Burns documentary on the history of boredom”); the generation gap separating those two from Mabel (Oliver to Charles: “‘Rando’ is a slang for a person of no significance”); and some extremely New York-specific jokes (Charles is incredulous that Oliver pays to park in their building), it runs the gamut of high and low comedy. Sometimes it is keenly self-aware; at others blessedly silly, like a running gag about how cheapskate Oliver subsists almost entirely on dips and sauces.
(*) It’s been more than a decade since Martin had a live-action script produced (and that was The Pink Panther 2). This is also the first TV show he’s created since way back in 1984 with Domestic Life, a short-lived CBS family sitcom with Martin Mull, and his first regular TV role of any kind since he was an ensemble player for a season on The Sonny and Cher Comedy Hour in the early Seventies. He’s hosted SNL so often, we may think of him as more of a TV guy than he actually is, but this is a real rarity, in front of and behind the camera.
But the series soon turns out to be — like The Princess Bride, Galaxy Quest, or Jane the Virgin — that rare and wonderful thing: the parody that also offers a great example of the genuine article.
Only Murders generates a lot of laughs out of just how inept Oliver and company are at crossing the fan-creator divide. (Warning: If you are one of the billions of podcasters currently walking planet Earth, some of their specific bumbling in this area will give you hives. Just remember that they are supposed to be bad at it.) But over the course of the eight episodes (out of 10) given to critics, Only Murders manages to take the mystery itself seriously, as well as the lonely inner lives of these three unlikely sleuths, in a way that enhances the comedy, rather than undercutting it.
The plot is satisfyingly twisty and engaging, and our heroes all feel wholly three-dimensional in short order. Charles’ nonstop quoting of Brazzos dialogue works as both a running gag and a mark of how empty his life has been since the show got canceled. Gomez has only acted occasionally since she graduated from Wizards of Waverly Place to pop superstardom, but her comic deadpan feels sharpened to a knife’s edge, and she’s an effective emotional fulcrum for the story. Even Short’s amusingly over-the-top moments feel very true to the persona Oliver has crafted for himself, in part to conceal what a disappointment he’s turned out to be.
The stars are flanked by a murderer’s row of supporting and guest actors, including Amy Ryan as Charles’ potential love interest Jan, Nathan Lane as Oliver’s longtime benefactor Teddy, and Sting as himself… and a potential suspect?! There’s also a remarkable episode late in the run told from the POV of Teddy’s deaf son Theo (played by James Caverly) that manages to keep the story moving briskly without audible dialogue, and to generate humor from the device without in any way diminishing Theo as a character.
At one point, Oliver praises Mabel as weird in “the way all your favorite people are weird.” Prepare for these to become your new favorite weirdos, and Only Murders to become your new addiction — even if you can’t just listen to it while you’re out on a run.
The first three episodes of Only Murders in the Building will premiere August 31st on Hulu, with additional episodes releasing weekly.