True Crime and Comedy with Only Murders in the Building

I’m not a true-crime podcast nut. I’ve no patience for the format; I prefer my crime scene visualized in a finite manner, in a way that I get to see what it is and there’s no scope for creating a hundred versions, each unique from the perspective of the listener tuning in. Perhaps, that could explain how I had little patience to read murder mysteries even as a kid.

When I found myself hopelessly addicted to Only Murders in the Building, I wondered if it was the series or my sheer inability to explore the true crime genre outside of the visual medium.

I could swear this murder mystery-comedy was the stuff of dreams when I first saw the trailer and yet fully expected this to disappoint me. However, it was far from a disappointment.

For once, I found myself begging for more true crime aficionados in my life and deriving joys from watching them unravel the case as I witnessed the characters run around town doing the same.

Starring Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomes, Only Murders in the Building kicks off as a parody on the Upper West Siders; attempting to find meaning in their lives by fussing over a true-crime podcast. Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin) can’t seem to move on from his reel life role as a lead detective in a 90s Crime TV show Brazzos (think Castle but make it 90s). Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) has delusions of grandeur as a stage director while running away from pending bills. Meanwhile, always impeccably dressed Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) is renovating her aunt’s apartment at the Arconia where the three of them bump into each other during an elevator ride, and what happens next (will blow your mind?) is what they set to uncover over the next 10 episodes.

Tim Kono (Julian Cihi), the young grump from the building rides aboard the elevator when these three folks meet each other for the first time. The building alarm goes off exactly 12 minutes later, the residents are asked to evacuate, leading Charles aka Brazzos, Oliver and Mabel to share a table at a restaurant near Arconia (their plush apartment complex), to bond over their favourite true-crime podcast by Cindy Canning (Tina Fey)— All Is Not Okay In Oklahoma. This elevator ride is Tim Kono’s last, as Charles, Oliver and Mabel learn that he’s committed suicide, upon their return to Arconia. They deduce that this was a murder and an inside job by piecing together clues from his last sighting during the shared elevator ride as he displayed no sign of depression or a reason to take his life.

The trio concludes that it had to be someone from the building who orchestrated that and made it look like a case of suicide. From that point onwards, everything until the last episode becomes an investigation by the trio (and later their fans) on this whodunnit. What starts off as infantilizing murder mystery genre takes on a powerful form with parody and rewriting the plot of just a murder mystery.

To zero in on the suspects, Oliver zones into time-outs where he channelizes his theatre director role and takes into account those who would or would not be prominently placed in Kono’s life as residents. Mabel’s personal connection takes the viewers into the only tangible theories on who Tim Kono is, and Charles’ (role) as Brazzos makes him into an affable connection between Oliver’s zany and Mabel’s practical. He becomes almost like the voice of reason between the two. All three of them come together on Kono’s murder, but stay together to cope up with their respective loneliness and their commitment phobia.

The show is equal part comedy as it is empathetic while peering into the deeply lonely lives we lead in big cities and constantly distracting ourselves over the miseries of others. We indulge in hobbies including consuming true crime podcasts, reading books, meeting friends, going on dates and seeking relationships and finding miscellaneous ways to entertain ourselves. Other than that, very little moves us. A reminder of that works in the show as Howard’s cat(s) and the relationship that the members of Arconia share with the pets. The series brings that out time and again, loud and clear for the viewers to read into the plot— had it not been for the intersecting hobbies of the lead characters, their paths wouldn’t cross.

What stands out is the dynamics between two old men and a young woman starting a true-crime podcast together. It’s not just the audience who questions the nature of the relationship and the oddity of it, Mabel’s mother, Detective Williams (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), Oliver’s frequent show sponsor and fellow resident Teddy Dimas (Nathan Lane) bring out the obvious questions—what the actual fuck? Why on earth even? However, the trio becomes hooked to the case in the process of documenting their evidence and line of investigation for the podcast “Only Murders in the Building” as a means to nab the real killer. Through the course of the series, they are threatened to stop by multiple agencies including the actual killer, fellow residents of the building among others, and yet, they keep it going, for they feel they owe it to their audience to share the truth.

It is in the process of unraveling the murder mystery, we learn about each of the three — why Mabel’s so secretive and quiet, what is the reason for Charles’ reluctance to seek new romantic relationships and how Oliver’s notorious for big ideas and their poor execution. For whatever seems confusing and complex, Only Murders in the Building explains a few moments (or episodes) later for clarity, leaving no secrets between the show and their audience, barring the obvious hook that runs from the pilot till the finale.

The show catches your eye from the opening credit itself. The illustrations are poignant yet carry a lightness, making them memorable as opposed to looking at them with utmost seriousness of trying to catch the killer. Siddhartha Khosla’s done a phenomenal job on the OST, and the opening title track is going to be my contender for one of the best I have heard this year.

Creators Steve Martin and John Hoffman may have taken on a fun project but for me, it was the details and the writing that won. With episodes dropping weekly, it had my attention and devotion, despite the pace being slow and nothing like the television we are used to watching. The finale earlier this week, though expected, was well crafted and a fitting end to the first season. For the most part, the performances are goofy and attentive, keeping you aptly hooked, even during most cold openings when you can’t seem to understand the point.

James Caverly (Theo Dimas) delivers a magnificent performance throughout the series, especially in Episode 7 (The Boy From 6B) where the audience is led through into the episode from Theo’s perspective, as a deaf resident, making sure there’s no sound for anyone including the viewers. A moment as powerful as that can rarely ever be captured in the podcast format, but the beauty of watching the visuals is, of course, experiencing this moment. Together with Amy Ryan (Jan), Steve Martin delivers a roaring performance in the finale. Martin Short occupies the screen each time the trio is together, just as is expected from the role. The weakest performance for me was Gomez’s, however, there’s nothing an acting coach can’t solve.

The writing is clever, punchy and the series is a bite-sized (hors d'oeuvre?) meal for the audience to chew into during the upcoming festive and wedding season, especially if you’re going to be homebound and are scoffing at those who are mingling and stepping out. I wish I had savoured this and taken my time, as opposed to mindlessly ingesting it at the pace in which I did. However, regardless of how you consume Only Murders in the Building, I highly recommend consuming it while it’s fresh and spoilers don’t quite tell you who killed Tim Kono.

Right up there in the top 5 series I’ve streamed this year, Only Murders in the Building makes you hope that you’re not the biggest asshole in your own residential building and that even if you are the biggest asshole, you hope to not drop dead soon after you bump into the fellow residents. Don’t make excuses to delay this and don’t wait for your family and friends to recommend you the show. Chances are, they won’t stumble on this at all, not unless they’re avoiding writing their dissertation.

The series is available for streaming on Disney+Hotstar in India.

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Anisha Saigal

Pop-culture omnivore. Entertainment and culture writer for now; publishing in the past. Retirement in the future.
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