‘Only Murders in the Building’: A True Crime Romp With Killer Laughs

Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building” is another lively showcase for some great screen veterans to show us how it’s done. The story may be entertaining enough, but without Steve Martin and Martin Short, it just wouldn’t have the same kick. You can almost feel them doing this series for pure fun, to get the chance to flex their comedy muscles. It’s a discovery, how well Selena Gomez pairs with Martin and Short, providing the right counterbalance to their zaniness. The three become the soul of the series, grabbing our attention much better than the premise, which still has fun commenting on our current obsession with true crime.

One outlet that has become the must for the average true crime aficionado is podcasts. That’s how “Only Murders in the Building” begins, by introducing us to Charles (Martin), Oliver (Short) and Mabel (Gomez), who all live in the Arconia on the Upper West Side, a pricey New York City apartment building, and all listen to the same true crime podcast. Charles is a struggling actor whose claim to fame is a cop show he was in decades ago, Oliver is a washed out Broadway director quickly going bankrupt, while Mabel is a mystery. The three meet one night when the building is evacuated after a body is found on the ninth floor. When they instantly click via their love for the same podcast, morbid curiosity gets the better of the three and they go look at the corpse. It turns out to be the body of another tenant, Tim Kono (Julian Cihi). The police immediately rule it a suicide but the new friends are not convinced. They decide to embark on their own podcast and begin searching for clues and suspects, while Mabel keeps her own ties to Kono secret.

Co-created by Martin and John Hoffman, “Only Murders in the Building” differs from some of the other recent shows starring seasoned stars. It’s not too obvious in trying to cater to the boomer crowd, instead preferring to be a genuinely universal comedy. Martin has always been a sharp satirist, just think of his screenplays for “Roxanne” and “Bowfinger,” which celebrated Edmond Rostand and filmmaking while having delirious fun poking at them too. “Only Murders in the Building” is a buddy comedy but also a drama, and a jab at the morbid curiosity at the heart of our cultural obsession with true crime. There’s that dark thrill in wanting to be detective on the case, solving a murder and uncovering a killer. For Charles and Oliver, banning together to solve who killed Tim Kono also fills a void in their lives. Charles can’t get any good parts, the younger generation, like Mabel, don’t even remember his show anymore. Oliver stubbornly resists advice from his son to sell his apartment amid mounting bills. Oliver prefers to fantasize that searching for suspects is the same as casting the right face for a role. These are melancholy characters, who can be hilarious but ultimately very tragic. We feel for Oliver every time he practically begs someone for money, from his son to a potential chicken wrap sponsor, played with classic, manic anxiety by Nathan Lane.

Like an Agatha Christie novel, the trio begins lining up suspects among tenants, ranging from a neighbor torn over the death of his pet, to rock star Sting, who ruffles Oliver with his hatred for dogs. These make for showcases of engagingly fun cameos. Sting is quite convincing as a grump. His cameo also allows for some fun, cross-generational banter between Charles, Oliver and Mabel, who points out “Every Breath You Take” is mistaken for a love song when it’s more of an obsessive stalker anthem. This should make the singer an automatic suspect. Parallel to this we get flashbacks revealing little by little Mabel’s own connection to Kono, which appears to involve a childhood friendship and a circle of other friends where jealousies and broken hearts caused problems. “Only Murders in the Building” does a much better job than Apple TV’s recent “Truth Be Told” in using podcast culture to shape a plot. Different characters narrate episodes with that podcast cadence that has become so popular, and the mystery becomes entangled without going way over the top.

In the end this show truly is about the spirit Martin and Short bring to the material, with Gomez as the more serious member of the trio. The two veterans are experienced enough by life to take a looser stance, even as their private lives are currently more than precarious. Mabel is still young enough to be jaded and a know-it-all, but also helps the other two stay oriented. What brings these three together is loneliness. Solving the murder erases any age barriers, because they can all relate to the need to find answers and purpose. That probably doesn’t sound very funny, but with this trio you can laugh and cry.

Only Murders in the Building” season one begins streaming Aug. 31 with new episodes premiering Tuesdays on Hulu.