Only Murders in the Building
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Andy Warhol was wrong. It wasn’t that everyone would be famous for 15 minutes in the future, but that everyone would have a 15-minute podcast. And a lot of those would be about true crime, to the point that we all know.
I do not listen to true-crime podcasts. But they’re so infused into popular culture at this point that I know all the markers—the soothing but oh-so-slightly clenched narration, the generically sinister music cues, the turn of phrase that marks the cliffhanger, tantalizing the listener with just enough of a twist to bring them back for the next episode. Let’s just say Serial has a lot to answer for.
There have already been parodies of such podcasts, some of them pretty good, and now there is Only Murders In The Building, a magnificently silly comedy about three New Yorkers who take it upon themselves to solve a crime by launching a podcast about it.
In the massive Upper West Side apartment complex called the Alcona, young money manager Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) is found dead in his apartment from what looks like a self-inflicted gunshot wound. But Tim’s neighbours—former TV detective Charles (Steve Martin), self-absorbed Broadway director Oliver (Martin Short), and Mabel (Selena Gomez), a young woman with an enigmatic connection to the deceased—become convinced his death wasn’t a suicide, and launch a true-crime podcast to solve it. They already listen to a popular true-crime show; how hard could it be to make their own?
That’s the spark for this new inspired series, created by Martin and producer John Hoffman, which functions equally well as a New York comedy, a satire of the true-crime genre and a satisfying mystery in its own right; it’s also a gleeful skewering of a certain breed of narcissistic showbiz lifer. (If you liked that Documentary Now! parody of Original Cast Album: Company, this will be right up your alley.)
The show borrows the structure of a serialized podcast, with the mystery doubling back on itself as new evidence surfaces, existing clues gain shocking new context, and the lives of the hosts become tangled up in their own investigation. Formally, it’s a delight, with every episode introduced by a different narrator, and storytelling elements laid out methodically and inventively to encourage repeat viewings.
Everyone’s having a ball, the filmmaking is inventive and even innovative, and for those of us who’ve missed Martin’s impeccable screwball timing, it’s just a pleasure to see him back on screen in a role specifically tailored to his strengths. Not that Short and Gomez aren’t equally enjoyable to watch here, mind you, but Martin’s influence as a writer and producer can be felt in every episode.
There’s an elegance to the flow of jokes and a grace to the choreography of physical bits that recalls movies like Roxanne and L.A. Story, where actions could feel exacting but also somehow loose-limbed. There’s an episode late in the run with almost no spoken dialogue, and it feels like a trick he’s been trying to pull off for his entire life.
There’s always been an overly expressive element to Martin’s comedy—I refer you to The Great Flydini, a bit he did on late-night shows almost 30 years ago—but with age has come a new confidence. It’s probably not a coincidence that Charles is a formerly famous person who’s receded from the limelight but still gets recognized everywhere he goes; Martin’s recessiveness in the role is built on his own public persona, which plays beautifully against Short’s signature shouty haughtiness. And having Gomez around to puncture their self-absorption is even better; she’s crankier and more over-it than either of these veterans, and it’s a joke that rolls through every episode.
Anyway, you may have noticed that I’ve written all these words without really discussing the plot that much. That’s my gift to you. Go discover your latest true-crime addiction, even if it’s one-hundred percent made up.