‘Only murders in the building’: True crime makes good neighbours
Two veteran comedians from Hulu bring to the table the personae they have firmly established in the public’s mind. Steve Martin plays self-impressed men, often pompous and a bit tense, while Martin Short portrays showbiz phonies who turned up 11.
The actors fit in easily and predictably at first: Martin plays Charles, an actor who is living off royalties from his old cop show. Short plays Oliver, a struggling theatre director who hasn’t had a hit for decades.
The podcast is a popular true-crime podcast that both men love. After a mysterious death in their Upper West Side apartment, they decide to create their own podcast.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the series would be more expansive and manic than it actually is. The opening minutes of the episode is a good example of this. Martin walks down a UWS street wearing a porkpie cap while his voice reads a boring bit of narration. Short is wearing a flashy purple jacket and narrating his outrageous thoughts about New York City.
It won’t be until halfway through the first episode that you realize those monologues, and another one delivered by Selena Gomez, Mabel, are parodies of a type of portentous narration common in true-crime podcasts.
This is just one clue that the series is smarter and more into the joke than you think.
The podcast they love is called All Isn’t OK in Oklahoma. This is a solid business. Martin and Short both modulate their performances to bring out the humanity in their characters. Martin’s Charles can be tense and arrogant, but he is mostly a lonely and sad man who struggles to connect with others. Oliver is the showbiz phony Short has made a career of ridiculing. But he’s dialled down. Short is a legend and can be funny when doing well, but Oliver finds humour in everything rather than threatening them.
Gomez’ Mabel is another thing that the show does well. She often acts as a cool, sardonic foil to Martin and Short’s “clueless uncle” vibe. It’s the grounded energy and secrets that her character holds that propels the series.
Only Murders In the Building is a hilarious podcast that makes it look easy to create, launch, and maintain a podcast. Oliver’s method of recording, where he waves a microphone in the direction of his subject, would earn him a harsh talking-to from any producer. Amazingly, someone with Oliver’s experience could quickly learn the intricacies of equalizing and compressing multiple audio tracks.
These are just shortcuts and workarounds, but they’re necessary for the story to be told. The twists and turns keep increasing as their amateur murder investigation becomes more complex. As a result, everyone gets a backstory tied in (but not too closely) to the main plot. Eight episodes out of ten were screened for reviewers. They feature moments of dreamlike surreality that deftly layer emotions the characters aren’t ready to share in the dialogue instead of distracting from the main plot.
Only Murders in the Building doesn’t end up being the absurd farce that its plot and stars suggest. That’s a good thing. It is more muted and real. And it has a good sense of who and what its characters are. It’s also quite funny, which is not surprising. However, it features grounded and satisfyingly nuanced performances by Martin and Short.