MUST-SEE TV: Only Murders in the Building

I have been known to complain slightly about bad mystery series on TV. And so it gives me great pleasure to announce that a really good one dropped on Hulu a couple of months ago. Only Murders in the Building was created by actor Steve Martin and John Hoffman and stars Martin, Selena Gomez, and Martin Short as three tenants living in a storied Upper West Side apartment building who join forces when another tenant dies. I just finished watching the tenth and final episode of the first season (Good news! OMitB has been renewed!), and I have to say it has been a long time since I can remember watching a show that really enjoyed being a mystery.

Yes, the show follows the patterns I have discussed (and slightly complained about in a recent post): the laying out of an intriguing situation followed by a series of harrowing plot twists thatat end every episode, until we finally arrive at a shocking resolution that may or may not have been foreshadowed, hinted or even rarely but legitimately clued. OMitB does all this, but it never goes off the rails and is both mystifying and highly entertaining, packed with humor and fine meta-references to the genre is so capably represents. 

The show is top-notch from the start, with gorgeous title credits that contain a different Easter egg in each episode offering a clue to the plot or to the aforementioned twist at each final moment. (I actually didn’t know this until I read about it after watching, so it gives me a wonderful excuse for watching again.) Being a comedy, sometimes these twists serve as punchline, but I’m happy to say both that the punchlines are good (I especially like the one that ends Episode Four) and the show never settles for the laugh but manages to still be an excellent murder mystery.  

Steve Martin

The characterization is top-notch as we meet the varied eccentrics who live in the Arconia. Steve Martin plays Charles Haden-Savage, an actor whose sole claim to fame is his starring role in Brazzos, a 1980’s cop drama. Now Charles is reduced to scrounging for commercials (he chafes at having to audition for one where they’re looking for a guy who “looks like Brazzos”) and dealing with fans who half-remember him largely for his trademark phraseology. Martin never goes lifts from his bag of “wild and crazy guy” tricks but delivers a heartfelt portrayal of a man forced by life into the role of curmudgeon and completely at a loss of how to exit his lonely life.

Martin Short

Martin Short is Oliver Putnam, a once in-demand Broadway director whose most recent debacle (it’s too funny for me to spoil here) has led to poverty, a drinking problem and semi-estrangement from his family. Short has the extravagant role here, which suits his talents well, but even he gets his chance to quiet down and show us a more vulnerable, wounded man. 

Selena Gomez

Rounding out the trio is Mabel Mora, touchingly played by Selena Gomez. When she was a girl, Mabel was fobbed off by her hard-working mother on a rich aunt who happened to live in the Arconia. Now she’s back, staying in her aunt’s apartment and trying to prove to her mom that she has the talent to be a designer. Wisely, Gomez plays the straight woman in this trio, and she holds her own beautifully against the pair of comic veterans on either side of her.

These three strangers find themselves in the elevator one day when fellow tenant Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) steps in, holding a garbage bag and yelling into his phone. Mabel, Charles, and Oliver will have reason to remember this moment later that evening when Tim is discovered in his apartment, shot to death. Having bonded earlier that evening over their shared love of “All Is Not Well in Oklahoma,” a highly popular true crime podcast produced by the hugely successful Cinda Canning (Tina Fey at her wryest), they join forces and decide to investigate Tim’s death. 

Every character in the series is carrying some heavy secrets, including our three heroes, and I’m not going to spoil a single one. Rest assured that the varied suspects and other characters our sleuths come across are a delightfully bunch who don’t just rest on their quirks but all get moments to shine, thanks to the performances and the writing. These include Nathan Lane as Teddy, a Greek caterer and Broadway angel, Jane Houdyshell as Bunny, head of the tenants’ association, Michael Cyril Creighton as Howard Morris, a truly nightmarish cat lover (it’s very hard for me to write those words!), Aaron Rodriguez as a dreamy mystery man, and Amy Ryan as Jan, a symphony bassoonist who develops a crush on Charles. There’s even a famous musician who plays the very worst version of themselves and comes briefly under suspicion.

There are other suspects as well, but it’s more fun if you discover them as you go along. Often an episode will play partly from the point of view of another character, like Detective Williams (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), the cop in charge of Tim’s case, who comes to realize she must re-open it when she catches her wife listening to the trio’s podcast, or Teddy’s deaf son Theo (James Caverly), whose episode is a highlight of the series as it contains no dialogue for a whole range of reasons that go far beyond the obvious. 

So often these short-term mystery series are only as good as their final episode, but first and foremost OMitB manages to be witty and suspenseful at the same time, even when the Three Investigators are off on a tangent. And although ten half hours goes very quickly, time is spent developing Charles, Oliver and Mabel so that we come to care for them and definitely want to see them flex their sleuthing muscles in future cases. 

One delightful episode centers around zany podcast fans, like me, who think they know more than the hosts!

All too soon, that final episode does arrive, however, and I’m happy to say that the series does not drop the ball when it comes to a satisfying denouement. In fact, the last half hour packs in an amazing amount of entertainment, delivering a thrilling climax, a whole big explanation for what happened . . . and a wonderfully surprising coda that reassures us we haven’t seen the last of Oliver, Mabel, and Charles. 

One of the biggest frustrations I’m sure many of us are feeling these days is the fragmentation of televised entertainment. Cable TV is way too expensive, and now dozens of streaming services are popping up, each of them offering a few examples of top-notch programming to headline an otherwise ordinary line-up of recycled shows and movies. Yes, you can watch Fleabag on Amazon Prime, Sex Education on Netflix, and The Good Fight on Paramount Plus.  That will only cost you 5 – 10 dollars a month – per streaming service!!! – and all the while your friends will be talking about The Mandalorian on Disney Plus and Schmigadoon on Apple TV. 

It’s ridiculous, and I’m not going to even try and talk you into adding another expense for the sake of one program. If you do get Hulu, however, Only Murders in the Building is the perfect diversion for fans of mystery and/or comedy. It’s light and clever and altogether charming. I’m sure I will binge watch it again at least once more before the Three Investigators tackle their second case. 

Another season? Yes!! But those streaming rates!!! Are they worth it? It’s up to the fans . . .

10 thoughts on “MUST-SEE TV: Only Murders in the Building

  1. I’ve yet to see it, but it looks very promising, and as with Knives Out seems to put to rest the argument that good comedy precludes the possibility of good mystery plotting. I don’t see why anyone ever thought that was the case. After all, the suspense aspect of Casablanca never kept it from being witty, romantic, dramatic, and inspirational. There’s nothing mutually exclusive about such factors. Of course, I realize why a work that is designed to be primarily comical would not indulge in a puzzle plotting dénouement on the level of The Last of Sheila or Evil under the Sun. But, there must be some happy compromise between that and the likes of simply, “Red shoes? I never said he was killed wearing his red shoes. How did you know they were his RED shoes?”

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  2. Ah, the standard TV mystery clue! My favorite episode of Perry Mason has one like that having to do with the taste of prussic acid.

    I must warn you that you won’t find much in the way of sudden retrospective illumination here. That’s not how shows like this tend to operate, as I’ve said before. In place of that, we have some nice twists and turns, and there IS something that appears early on which, if you recognize what it is, you will have the mystery solved.

    These sorts of mysteries, like Knives Out (which is actually better clued), are more intuitive “Miss Marple” kinds of stories to me. My instincts led me early on to the killer in both of these, but that may be because I’ve watched so many of them. It’s best to sit back and enjoy. Plus, there are some brilliant cameos in this one, such as the actor who plays Steve Martin’s stunt double. I hope you get to see it soon.

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    1. When I saw Knives Out in the theater, I did not guess the right solution… as a matter of fact, I suspected as the film went that Rian Johnson had created a completely different twist. To ROT13 it, V orpnzr pbaivaprq gung gur zheqrere gur jubyr gvzr jnf Oynap. V unq fbzr unys-onxrq ybtvp oruvaq vg, gbb, juvpu V pbhyq ab ybatre rkcynva. Va gur fprar jurer ur rkcynvaf gur fbyhgvba, jura ur ebyyrq uvf fyrrir hc ng gur ortvaavat evtug nsgre ur fvgf qbja, V trahvaryl gubhtug ur jnf tbvat gb pbasrff naq gura vawrpg uvzfrys plnavqr be fbzrguvat. V nyjnlf jbaqrerq n ovg vs gung fyrrir-ebyyvat jnf qbar jvgu gur nhqvrapr cbffvoyl fhfcrpgvat Oynap va zvaq.

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      1. When I taught high school drama, I always had my students develop original murder mysteries. You would be amazed how many of them came to me wanting to incorporate the solution you ROT13’d above. I wonder if that speaks to their general cynicism about society, that nobody can be trusted, but I almost always said, “Sure, you can do it; in fact, groups 3 and 4 want to do the same thing.” They always changed their ending.

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  3. I was on the fence about watching this but you’ve convinced me to dive in as soon as I can… by the way, that one episode you mentioned that has no dialogue reminds me of the episode of “Mr. Robot” in its 4th & last season, which also had no dialogue except for a couple of lines at the beginning and ending. It still manages to be 45 minutes of absolutely captivating suspense. They also did a Birdman-esque episode in the third season where the editing has made the whole episode look like a single uninterrupted shot. Anyway, very glad to hear this show is worth it to watch!

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    1. I’m really angry that a reviewer spoiled the twist of this series and thus I never watched it. But I do like Rami Malek, and what you’re telling me here suggests that if I can find it, I really need to watch it for what it was doing, spoiled surprises or not.

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  4. This sounds right up my alley. Just a shame it isn’t on one of the bigger streaming platforms I already have, and since I don’t plan on adding to my already excessive number of subscriptions, who knows when I’ll get to this. Still, that something like this has been made and supposedly made quite well, with Steve Martin no less, is rather exciting. The last time he did a comedic take on one of my favourite genres, “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid”, it turned out to be brilliant.

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    1. My brother and I were talking about the show yesterday. He didn’t love it, and he cited Steve Martin’s age and inability to incorporate all his physical comic shtick. He actually DOES do some of that, and quite brilliantly, throughout the final episode. But I tend to like comic actors when they play it straight. I preferred Robin Williams that way. Steve Martin, I think is a more grounded actor than Williams was. Also, he’s a gifted writer and musician, and somehow I think that gives him gravitas when it’s called for. I really liked him in this, but don’t expect “Dead Men Don’t Wear Plaid” because this is very much NOT a pastiche.

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    1. As Scott Ratner alluded, this proved that you can make a strong, character-driven puzzle mystery that is also funny! I can’t wait to hang out with the denizens of the Arconia again!

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