Only Murders in the Builiding

3 out of 5

Created by: Steve Martin & John Hoffman

covers season 1

It feels a tad past the zeitgeist of one of its central character motivators – making a podcast – and also eager to earn some kind of self-aware merit badge by playing its 70+ year old stars (Steve Martin, Martin Short) and a rather classic mystery vibe against its roughed up, ten-swears-per-minute youngin co-star, Selena Gomez, but damn if the trio isn’t instantly amusing when playing off of one another, and damn if I’m not a sucker for classic mysteries.

Martin plays retired TV star Charles-Haden Savage, grumblingly acknowledging constant comments like “my grandpa used to watch you on TV”; Short plays defamed Broadway producer Oliver Putnam, always cheery but also always broke; and Selena Gomez plays Mabel Mora, a tenant in the Arconia – a building in which all three live – who’s maybe squatting in an apartment or maybe lying about why she’s there, but nevertheless joins Savage and Putnam in wanting to look further in to a recent death in the building which police have ruled a suicide. The three all turn out to be obsessed with the same true crime podcasts, and all also saw mysterious things on the night of the event, leading to an odd-thruple pouring out conspiracy theories to one another. The economically-minded Putnam has the idea to make it a podcast; the longs-for-the-old-days Savage wouldn’t mind being the voice of it; and Mabel? Well, why not: because she’s the gordian knot character about whom we’ll find out more along the way.

Pledging to keep the scope of their investigation to “only murders in the building” – naming the podcast and the show, natch – this seems kind of like a limiting title, but as the show stretches out to explore (and accuse) other tenants, it’s clear to see how this could be a lot of fun: season-long mysteries, with recognizable faces like landlords and building busy-bodies providing red herrings and clues, and any fun cameos you need can be stuffed beyond an apartment which hasn’t yet been visited.

The show is definitely a little stiff in finding the right balance of humor – which needs to keep the suicide / murder serious, giving us some stakes, but also wants to maintain a consistent affability, and a style of jokes and pace that will work for either older or younger fans – but once the three are past the sometimes obnoxious growing pains, bickering and breaking up, the series gets in to a pretty addictive rhythm. Martin being cast as the straight man is where the equation somewhat consistently feels thrown, unfortunately; Short has to be the goof, of course, and he’s made a career of running that goofiness into the ground until it wears you down and becomes charmingly silly, and that works here, and Gomez is also rather delightfully snide, bringing a lot of humanity to her role, which easily could’ve just been someone doing sarcastic line reads with constant eye rolls. Martin, then, can’t be the sharp one – that’s Gomez – or the loud one, and so does something halfway towards a curmudgeon, but it’s watered down with almost too much innocence such that his character becomes, in context, rather unbelievable at points. Giving him some edge (not EVERYONE needs a tragic backstory…) might’ve perked the pace up overall, but about 70% of the time the dynamic is on point, and that’s a good enough ratio.

The mystery is moreso fueled by some of the fun complications that arise, as opposed to being necessarily interesting in and of itself. It’s definitely a Columbo-level type affair – something that would be handled in one episode or TV movie, but is played out with more false ends and runaraounds to get us to 10 episodes. However, the show never really presents it as anything more diabolical or clever than that, with its boppy score (Siddhartha Khosla) and softball sense of humor, so it also ultimately gets a pass.

All of this is rather indicative of why the show is successful at keeping us watching: it’s playing with classic mystery procedural tropes, and an old style of humor, but with enough awareness to know that you’ve seen and heard that before… so the focus is moreso on making sure we’re having a good time than on trying to blow our minds. And because of that, I gleefully tuned in each week, and am happy to hear that I’ll be able to do so again for at least one more season.