There’s a good chance you won’t be aware of my current obsession. It’s called Only Murders in the Building, and it’s streaming weekly as part of Star on Disney+. This charming, yet sophisticated half-hour comedy is the brainchild of one of its stars Steve Martin. Martin, who developed a love of true crime podcasts, had the idea for what became the show over a decade ago.
His original idea centred around three older men who were obsessed with solving crimes. Due to their age and ill health they decided they’d only solve crimes when and if they occurred in the building they all lived in.
Martin sat on this idea, kicked it around a bit, and pitched to his friend and long-term double act partner, Martin Short who convinced him it was a good idea and had to be made. Martin and Short have a long career, mostly in laugh out movies so it’s both a shock and a pleasant surprise that this story, which would have worked just as effectively as a movie, is instead told in ten episodes of a streaming show.
In the ten years since the original idea popped into his head, the format and premise have shifted and morphed into what has become one of my favourite shows and biggest surprises of the year. Whilst Steve Martin and Martin Short are the two old men from Martin’s original vision, they’re joined by Selena Gomez as neighbour Mabel, who initially has little time for the two old men in her life, but, just like the audience, warms to their charm. It’s a trio that sounds utterly bizarre on paper but the dynamic between them is what gives the show its heart.
When we each member of the soon-to-be-investigators they are strolling around New York. Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin) is the has-been star of a Nineties cop show called Brazzos, a show that made him briefly a household name but whose success he’s never been able to replicate. Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) is a flamboyant, uber-confident Broadway Director just waiting for his next hit of inspiration to strike. Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) is a bit more of a mystery. How does this 20something afford to live in the lavish New York tower block? The three have an awkward exchange in the lift before rushing to their respective apartments so as not to miss the latest episode of, All Is Not Okay In Oklahoma (a mock true-crime podcast in the vein of Serial hosted by Cinda Canning *an excellent cameo from Tina Fey)
They meet up again when their building is evacuated and form an unlikely bond over their mutual passion. When they’re allowed back into the building they discover one of their neighbours has been murdered which prompts the ever-ambitious Oliver to suggest they team up and record their own podcast, Only Murders in the Building.
What follows is one of the most consistently laugh out loud funny and charming comedies I can remember. It would be easy for Martin and co-creator John Hoffman to use their premise to mock the true-crime podcasts the threesome are trying to emulate, but instead, as Rolling Stone review Alan Sepinwall put it, “it manages to be that rare and wonderful thing: the parody that also offers a great example of the genuine article.”
The series has an awful lot going on and it handles it all expertly. The twists and turns that surround the death of Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) are as engrossing as any true-crime documentary you’ll have seen. The series makes sure to hit those recognisable beats and to take them seriously and I found myself increasingly more and more drawn in by the central mystery. Outside of the whodunnit element, the series works because it understands how to put its characters at the centre of the action. Yes, it’s laugh-out-loud funny but it also makes sure that the people we’re following feel like grounded real people.
The central trio here all have interesting backstories. Mabel’s is shrouded in secrecy. Without spoiling too much, it appears she was close with Tim as a child and teen but something had gone on between them that the audience is only drip-fed details about. Outgoing and charismatic Oliver is struggling to pay his rent and risks losing his home following the catastrophic failure of his last stage production. He reluctantly asks his son (Ryan Broussard) for money and when the podcast looks like it needs a sponsor he calls on friend Teddy (Nathan Lane) to bankroll him. Charles also has a secret he’s keeping. There’s a mention of a daughter he appears to have lost touch with and there’s the sense that he’s a man who is lost. There’s a hint of a love interest when he meets basoonist Jan (Amy Ryan) but that’ll only work if he can keep his anxiety nosebleeds under control.
It’s a show with so much heart that manages to get the balance just right so that none of it ever feels saccharine. Whenever I get invested in a whodunnit, I often wonder if I’m going to be disappointed by the way they ‘stick the landing’.(I’m looking at you, Line of Duty) The underwhelming reveal of a killer can taint the enjoyment of the journey to that point. I don’t have any such worries here, I just love being in this world with these people. Whatever brings to the series, whether it be the lure of Steve Martin, comedy or interesting crime, I guarantee you’ll be staying until the final episode of the podcast.