Review: Only Murders in the Building 1×1-1×3 (US: Hulu; UK: Disney+)

The perfect start to post-lockdown life

In the US: Available on Hulu
In the UK: Available on Disney+. New episodes Tuesdays

Fans of TMINE will know that TMINE is not a fan of… well, lots of things, because it’s getting old and crotchety (hence the need for some new, younger blood to add some positivity to things). But also because it has taste. However, specifically, reality shows aren’t getting so much as a sideways glance from TMINE and crime is all but dead to me, because it honestly always seem to be the same old show, time after time after time, and why would you want to watch that?

As a result, the phenomenon of the true crime podcast, which being audio-only has even less appeal than one of those CBS Reality shows such as Murderers and their Mothers, has pretty much passed me by. People listening at home to usually a complete amateur investigating a crime that took place in real life in the hope of solving it, where police have supposedly failed? What could possibly go wrong?

It’s actually almost fortunate then that I stumbled across Only Murders in the Building while skimming through Disney+, looking for something new to watch. I had no idea what it was about, but it had a nice graphic and… Wait, is that… Steve Martin? (reads cast list) Martin Short! Really? He’s still alive and acting?… Selena Gomez? Who’s she? Hang on, I think I’ve heard of her. (Another reason TMINE is in urgent need of new, younger blood…).

And it was co-created by Steve Martin? Okay, sign me up.

So I had zero expectations beyond the creator and the cast of what the show was going to be. And that at half an hour an episode (it’s the new 40 minutes, doncha know?) I could watch at least one without it taking a chunk out of my oh-so-packed day.

Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez in Only Murders in the Building

Only a murder in our building

Turns out, it’s about a bunch of people who live in an expensive New York apartment block and who like most people who live in expensive New York apartment block, never talk to one another and don’t know anything about one another. Then one day, there’s an alarm and they’re forced to evacuate the building and de camp elsewhere. There, lo and behold, our three heroes discover they’re all fans of the same true crime podcast.

They try to solve the featured crime together, as fans of true crime podcasts are apparently wont to do, but when they get back to the building, they discover there’s been a real crime committed. Together, they try to solve it and launch their own podcast in the process. The podcast’s hook? Only murders in the building will be investigated…

Only loneliness in the building

The show is both a sly murder-mystery and a timely, lockdown-esque look at loneliness and bringing people together. Martin is the former star of a 90s TV cop show, who’s picked up some investigative skills along the way; but he’s alone and hides his loneliness and the reasons for it using dialogue he remembers from his old show, hoping no one else will know it. He’s hoping for a little bit of a comeback from the podcast, for which, Dennis Waterman-style, he also produces the theme tune.

Meanwhile, Short is a Producers-esque theatre producer, known for a spectacular flop that nearly killed all its cast. He’s virtually bankrupt and now he has to keep returning to his son for money, just so he can afford to stay in his apartment. There’s a poignancy to his ostentation and his desperation to cling on to something that gives him self-esteem, but producing the podcast gives him a chance to mine what few old friends he has left (Nathan Lane) for cash at last.

Gomez is more of a mystery, despite being the one person who knew the victim. Staying in an apartment she’s too young to afford, she also used to investigate (and perpetrate) crimes with the victim as part of a gang called The Hardy Boys – yes, named after those Hardy Boys (I’d completely forgotten The Mystery of the Whale Tattoo until I saw this. Wow. There’s a blast from the past). Did she kill him? Did one of the gang? And is she purely part of the investigation to put Short and Martin off the scent? Whatever the case, she’s as alone as Short and Martin are now.

Who is in the building?

As well as the core cast and Lane, Only Murders in the Building features appearances from Tina Fey as the host of the podcast and Sting (as a version of himself) and The Wire’s Amy Ryan as other inhabitants of the building. They all tie into what can only be described as the show’s ‘whimsical’ feel.

This isn’t heavy satire or 30 Rock/Community pioneering new forms of comedy at a rapid pace. Flashbacks to Martin’s Rather slightly naff 90s TV show don’t really take the time to point out the obvious: lots of 90s US crime shows were naff. They just take that as a given and use it as a backdrop to a humorous study of Martin’s character, rather than making it a focus.

Short’s appalling play is a mild takedown of some of Broadway’s more hubristic projects but largely it’s a take down of someone who would mortgage his own children’s future in the service of his own career – and what that leads to in later life.

Gomez’s character is by her gender, age and ethnicity the odd one out and so far, the show hasn’t yet quite worked out what it wants to say about her. Clearly, it can’t talk about winding down of life in old age, but unexpected second chances could well be the theme, given where the podcast is going. Or jail, given the series opens with a flashforward to her being arrested…

Isolated isolation

Coming out of lockdown as we all are, Only Murders in the Building is almost the perfect show to be watching. It’s short and not especially challenging, so doesn’t suck up too much of our drained attention span. It’s warm, with nothing too dreadful happening, despite the blood and murder. It’s humorous and will make you smile at least without being nasty, which is something to be valued, I feel. It won’t top any awards lists, but it’s a nice show.

More importantly and pertinently, it’s about reconnecting – or even just connecting – with people again. The story may be a New York apartment block; it may be about old people having the chance to create new friendships; it may be about a young woman now cut off from others, including her family, and looking for someone new.

But ultimately, it’s about people finding people and caring about others. We all need a little of that right now.

Author

  • I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.