Circling back to the bloody crime scene on the ninth floor of a posh Manhattan apartment building, the no-nonsense police detective encounters a motley crew of amateur sleuths: a 20-something woman flanked by two men in their 70s, all residents of the Upper West Side property. They engage the detective about forensics until she stops them.
“Look, this is suicide,” she says with annoyance. “Which podcast are you all hooked on? I swear, if I meet one more true-crime nut…”
Halfway through the premiere episode of “Only Murders in the Building,” a 10-part mystery series premiering August 31 on Hulu, this moment encapsulates its tone: tense drama with tongue-in-cheek self-awareness. Comedy legend Steve Martin and writer/producer John Hoffman (“Grace and Frankie” on Netflix) ironed out a serialized dramedy with a mix of magnetic personalities and wild twists that keep adding layers of complexity.
Fans of Steve Martin and Martin Short’s comedy schtick — from 1986’s “Three Amigos,” to two “Father of the Bride” movies, to multiple live tours in recent years — will feel right at home, as the set-up gives them maximum opportunity to play off each other. It’s also the longtime friends’ first TV show as co-stars, reflecting a years-long trend of big stars migrating to the small screen.
In these funhouse mirror versions of real life, Martin portrays a washed-up actor and Short a down-on-his-luck Broadway director. When a shocking death shatters their sense of safety and the building is cleared, the two meet in a cafe along with a third resident played by Selena Gomez. It turns out they’re all obsessed with the same true-crime podcast — a delicious parody titled “All is Not OK in Oklahoma” — to the point of drawing detailed maps of the crime scene and surrounding area.
Quickly deciding to launch their own crack investigation into the strange death and produce a podcast out of it, the three commence what might appear to be only a comedy of errors. Yet this suspenseful whodunit keeps viewers hooked by smartly balancing the macabre with droll amusement.
Some light spoilers follow.
Building the Case
Thrown into the mix of the comedy duo’s natural rapport, one might imagine Gomez would be a third wheel. But the singer-actress holds her own, bringing to life an intriguing character whose presence allows the show’s free-flowing humor to address generational and gender differences.
A pop star who hasn’t acted in a TV series for roughly a decade, Gomez shared in a recent interview how much she learned from her co-stars. “They have a sense of humor that’s just classic — I feel like it doesn’t exist anymore,” she said.
Each of the trio gets moments to shine as the story grows in complexity. An unattached interior designer living in her aunt’s apartment, Gomez initially conceals her personal connection to the victim and raises suspicions. After the triad of investigators begins to work as a team, Martin strikes up a romance with another resident, which complicates things.
Meanwhile, Short relives some of his former hits and mishaps on Broadway in an elaborate flashback sequence. Playing to his strengths, he leans into laughs in scenes opposite comic Nathan Lane (“The Birdcage”), who plays a deli owner named Teddy Dimas.
When Short hawks a sponsorship for the podcast, Dimas recounts all the opportunities he’d missed thanks to the plucky director. “‘Les Mis’ — It’s such a downer, Teddy, and all over a loaf of bread.” “Well, it was,” Short deadpans. “And ‘Hamilton’!” He grimaces: “I said they picked the one founding father with no pizzazz. That was wrong, I guess.”
Similar to later seasons of “The Office,” the series integrates a constellation of stars into its narrative, each gelling as part of the ensemble rather than seeming out of place. Tina Fey shows up as a character at first played for laughs — who also ups the stakes. Superstar Sting seems a likely suspect at multiple points. A pity they couldn’t work Tim Curry in for a cameo, considering “Clue” clearly provided some inspiration. Perhaps season two.
The series earns its TV-MA rating for a few moderately gory scenes — and mostly for language, as characters constantly drop f-bombs. (Note this review reflects 8 episodes provided to screen.) Considering Martin and Short’s history of tamer comic material, the coarseness seems unnecessary and reinforces Disney-owned Hulu’s reputation as not exactly family-friendly.
Classic Mystery Updated for Streaming Era
“Did you guys hear about that mysterious death in the park last night?” asks Short to his two companions in the pilot. “We could multitask a little bit, silo out a second investigation and do a second podcast.” Martin stops him: “No, we need to focus — only murders in the building.”
More than an offhand conversation that names the show, the exchange also reflects a truth about the series. Amid all the eccentric people and absurd situations, viewers find it’s influenced as much by Alfred Hitchcock’s “Rear Window” as by “Clue.” The trio continually narrows in on the horrific crime: who had the motive, means, and opportunity? Answers lead them to a cover-up involving multiple suspects over several years.
Red herrings abound, with the final episodes not only action-packed but also emotionally resonant. Even funnyman Short waxes philosophical when hinting at how it all wraps up. “I understand someone feeling they’re the victim,” he said in an interview. “Some people learn from their mistakes, and some people are destined to repeat them because they won’t accept any fault within themselves.”
Show co-creator Martin has expressed hopes that “Only Murders in the Building” will resonate so they’ll get the greenlight for future seasons. Whether it becomes the next binge-watch obsession or a hidden gem like Hulu’s “Hardy Boys” update, the story doesn’t give away its secrets easily — keeping viewers guessing possible outcomes to the end.
Rated TV-MA for coarse language, some violence and mature situations, “Only Murders in the Building” premieres its first three episodes August 31 on Hulu.