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‘Only Murders in the Building’ one killer show

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Few pop culture phenomena have been as pervasive in recent years as true crime podcasts. Even if you don’t listen to them yourself, odds are that you know at least one person who listens obsessively to one or more. “Serial,” “My Favorite Murder,” “Dirty John, “Dr. Death” – the list goes on and on. Hell, the latter two pushed so fully into the zeitgeist that they got TV adaptations.

But while some of these programs have made the leap across media, a new Hulu show has a different idea about how to bring true crime podcasts to the small screen.

“Only Murders in the Building” is a 10-episode series on the streaming service; the first three episodes dropped on Aug. 31, with subsequent episodes landing every Tuesday from September 7 through October 5. The show was created by Steve Martin and Dan Fogelman; it stars Martin alongside Martin Short and Selena Gomez.

The fundamental question is simple – what if true crime enthusiasts were presented with an opportunity to go in-depth on a murder of their own? The result – thanks to great performances, strong writing and a genuine affection for the genre – is a show that is funny, smart and sincere, managing to parody this very specific world while also crafting a great example of that world.

(Note: Eight episodes of the show were made available for critics.)

Charles Hayden-Savage (Steve Martin) is an actor, one who had a lengthy and lucrative run as the titular detective in the ‘90s cop show “Brazzos,” though he’s much less of a draw these days. Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) is a theatre director who was a hitmaker once upon a time, but had his career and reputation upended by a spectacular and infamous flop. Mabel (Selena Gomez) is a bit of a loner, living in her aunt’s apartment in an effort to help with a remodel. All three live in the Arconia, a high-end Manhattan co-op. None of them really know each other, beyond the occasional nod in the elevator.

One night, there’s a fire alarm, leading everyone to evacuate the building. Charles, Oliver and Mabel all separately make their way to the restaurant across the street to wait things out, only to wind up bonding over their shared love of a hit true crime podcast, the delightfully-titled “All is Not OK in Oklahoma,” hosted by murder pod superstar Cinda Canning (Tina Fey).

When they finally return to the building, it turns out that something terrible has happened. It appears that a young Arconia resident named Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) has committed suicide.

But … did he?

Charles, Oliver and Mabel all have doubts about just what happened to Tim Kono. Rather than a suicide, these three believe something far more sinister took place. They believe that Tim Kono … was murdered.

The three band together in an effort to solve this mystery themselves. Of course, being the true crime obsessives that they are, they decide to turn their investigation into a podcast. But as they start to dig, chasing red herrings and following dead-end leads, they grow closer to one another, learning more and more about the complex situations each has gone to great lengths to bury. They squabble and make up, finding one another alternately infuriating and endearing, but they remain focused on one singular question:

Who killed Tim Kono?

“Only Murders in the Building” is a delight. It is charming and funny, striking perfectly the balance between celebration and subversion; our three lead true crime lovers are wonderful parodies of lovers of the genre while also serving as quality examples of such. To poke fun and pay homage simultaneously is an incredibly difficult feat to pull off, yet here, it’s pulled off with aplomb.

The comedy here is quiet; there aren’t a lot of broad guffaws to be found here (though there are occasional bits of weirdness that definitely land in a similar way). The laughs are baked into the characters, with the writing serving as a delivery system for our central trio to awkwardly work their way into our hearts.

Because that’s the thing: the performances are exceptional.

Steve Martin is fantastic as the faded television star, deadpanning his way through unsatisfying encounters with people who vaguely remember him from “that cop show.” He tries to work his show’s catchphrases into his everyday interactions. He’s isolated and lonely, for reasons both outside his control and of his own making. Martin Short gives us all the unearned ego that comes with misplaced ambition; his self-image is utterly at odds with the reality of his circumstances, yet he manages to remain completely enamored with his own abilities. He’s a screw-up, but he’s a CHARMING screw-up – and that has defined the way he views the world. The two of them are dynamite together, taking advantage of their long history as performers and friends to convey a genuine, if odd, relationship.

But you expected that. What you might not have expected is just how good Selena Gomez is. She provides a wonderfully sardonic foil to the other two, treating them with an eye-rolling affection even as she deals with her own shadows. It’s shocking how easy she makes it look – I’d never have predicted that she could hang with these two legends with such casual grace, but she does.

Each performer has plenty of room to get theirs – and all excel when they get it – but it’s when they are together that it really starts cooking. The dynamic amidst them is so strange and satisfying, three great tastes that should taste weird together, but don’t. All this, plus some fantastic work from the supporting cast (including some delightful cameos; wait until our heroes engage with one of the building’s mega-famous residents – it’s a hoot).

“Only Murders in the Building” isn’t particularly heady. It’s not a show that requires you to parse deeper meanings or dig into internal mythology. It’s just a well-made, well-written comedy featuring not one, not two, but three outstanding lead performances. This show could get by on the charm of those leads alone, but thanks to some great plotting and a few well-placed twists and turns, it doesn’t have to. Hulu really killed it with this one.

[5 out of 5]

Last modified on Wednesday, 01 September 2021 11:59

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