The good news about Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building” is that it’s just about as funny and charming as one would expect from a murder mystery involving Steve Martin, Martin Short, and an inspired addition to the duo’s renowned comic chemistry, Selena Gomez. And there’s little bad news, really, because the show has figured out its own brand of goofy and surprising, as it throws the three characters into a spiraling investigation without a great deal of danger. The suspicious death of someone in their building is a dream come true for them, and that’s a morbid, giddy joke in itself.
The name of the deceased in this case is Tim Kono, a young resident of a massive New York City apartment building known as the Arconia. The cops decide that it’s a suicide, a gunshot wound to the head. But the nosy neighbors who love true-crime podcasts and sneak around the police tape for their own morbid curiosity, see the body and deduce that it’s a murder. Looking to get their own piece of podcast glory, struggling actor Charles (Martin), bankrupt Broadway director Oliver (Short) and a mysterious tenant named Mabel (Gomez) create their own show and investigation. Meanwhile, Mabel withholds knowledge about knowing Tim Kono, while living in a renovated apartment—one of many numerous details that the playful writing of the series raises as a cliffhanger and then answers shortly after.
Martin, Short, and Gomez are great fun to watch in this world, whether their characters are nursing private wounds or they’re embarking on this investigation that has a million clues. Martin and Short in particular lean into the eccentric dopiness of their characters, like with Charles and his sad but very funny past fame as an actor, or with Oliver and his status as a self-proclaimed visionary, who keeps asking people for money whether it’s his son or a chicken wrap sandwich sponsor (Nathan Lane, who eventually carves his own type of darkness in the story). Gomez’s Mabel is comparably more straight-faced, as if she walks into a room and knows she has to intentionally balance out the goofy energy from Oliver and Charles.
Martin co-created the show with John Hoffman, and while it expands with other writers and a handful of directors, there’s a charm in the dialogue that feels to be like it comes straight from Martin’s dry short stories. Take how the show gets its title: someone says that a second murder happened in the park, and they could include it in the podcast. But a different person shuts it down, saying “No, we need to focus. Only murders in the building.” It’s such a bizarre set-up and punchline, but meaningful to these characters and their silliness while trying to make podcast gold. That type of humor pops up throughout the series, also in the many ways that it somehow finds fresh ways to make funny generation gap jokes. The self-amusement of this show is rich, and infectious. The melancholy is perceptible too, as the show’s sensitive writing gets you to feel for everyone’s loneliness while rooting for their morbid hobby.
“Only Murders in the Building” has a great deal of fun with its unique true-crime angle and its expanding list of potential suspects, and it doesn’t worry about plotting so much as goofy character development. A very charming Amy Ryan enters the mix initially, for example, to make some bassoon puns. The mystery itself about who killed Tim Kono is more of an illusion of momentum, but there are just enough small twists, and personal mysteries related to secrets our three leads have withheld, that the story maintains its easy going air without being too loose. It’s a pretty smart series too, smart enough to address in episode eight about the lack of stakes in earlier episodes that at least boasted a great, bizarre cameo.
Every episode begins with a new voice, whether or not the character play a big role in the story. It’s a striking narrative approach that expands the character roster, including cop who initially investigated the case (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the podcaster who inspires them, or a certain outsider played by Jaboukie Young-White. The expanding of the character roster can sometimes work against it—as if it loses some edge by throwing out so many possibilities—but it does inspire a meaningful and unexpected seventh episode that takes place entirely from one character’s perspective, and has the writing building clever parts of the plot around it.
There’s a free-spirited mindset to the show that keeps it amusing, especially in how it fills in the backstories of its main characters. Oliver has very telling flights of fancy where he imagines his investigation of the apartment building killer as Broadway audition process, in which he’s the power-tripping director. For good measure, there’s a charming music-driven scene that features a concertina and bassoon player flirting, played for sweet, easygoing romantic effect that one could only get away with the carte blanche of a TV series. It’s not a coincidence that the series doesn’t play too literally about whenever Charles, Oliver, and Mabel release a new podcast episode, so much as just let it all unfold whenever it does. “Only Murders in the Building” can be filled with a whole lot of atmosphere, and that proves to be a mighty welcoming part about it.
Eight episodes screened for review. “Only Murders in the Building” premieres on Hulu on August 31, with a new episode premiering each week.
Nick Allen is the Senior Editor at RogerEbert.com and a member of the Chicago Film Critics Association.
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