Note: This review contains no major spoilers, and does not reveal the identity of the killer.
“Autumn in New York, why does it seem so inviting?” sang Billie Holiday with bittersweet longing in the classic jazz standard. The answer lies in the sights, sounds and smells. The gilded foliage puts on a grand display, made grander when the sun shines through them. The leaves rustle as the wind blows through the trees. Everyone’s got their cosiest colourful sweaters on. Radiating from the sidewalk is that recognisable big-city smell of street food, sweet pollution and sun-baked piss. As the setting of a whodunit comedy, autumnal New York becomes doubly inviting in the Hulu series, Only Murders in the Building.
The suicide of one Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) in an Upper West Side apartment complex brings together a trio of lonely tenants with a mutual passion for true-crime podcasts. Convinced it isn’t a suicide but a murder, the three decide to start their own investigation, documenting all the clues, twists and turns in a podcast of their own.
Playing the amateur sleuths are a couple of Boomers and a Millennial. The former represented by Hollywood comedy royalty Steve Martin and Martin Short, and the latter by pop princess Selena Gomez.
Each of these three neighbours in the apartments of Manhattan’s Arconia come with their own baggage. Martin is Charles Hayden-Savage, a former TV actor who once starred as a detective on a crime show. He has since faded into oblivion, living a quiet life of self-imposed solitude. Short is Oliver, a Broadway director whose career has taken a similar downturn, but still digs into his glory days, name-dropping the celebs he may or may not have worked with into every conversation like The Good Place’s Tahani. Despite being penniless and having to borrow money from his son to pay the rent on his apartment, Oliver is optimistic a comeback is just around the corner. If Charles and Oliver are has-beens hoping to reclaim their former glories, Mabel is a young woman haunted by her past. She knows more than she lets on, whether it is about ‘70s rock or her connection to Kono. The two used to be a part of a “Hardy Boys” gang of misfits as teens. Sending the investigation into whole new directions are the secrets, lies and motives of the three sleuths. As Charles puts it, “Sometimes it’s easier to figure out someone else’s secret than it is to deal with your own.”
In their shared loneliness and obsessions, the three come to support each other too. The generational gap between the odd throuple is bridged with humour, which plays on obvious-but-often-true differences in cell phone customs (Charles signing his texts vs Mabel’s aversion to calls) and necessary lessons in how to compliment a woman without sounding like a perv (Oliver’s motto of “if it isn’t on their body, you can like it” vs Mabel’s “No, to every word that’s coming out of your mouth”). Between Martin’s goofiness and Short’s general extra-ness, Gomez’s dry wit and drier delivery make for a perfect counterpoise. Mabel is quick with a retort (“Women who knock rarely make history.”) To accompany her snark, Gomez has got style too, making an instant impression in the season premiere as she walks down the street in a marigold faux fur jacket, matching sweater and plaid pants.
The success of a whodunit depends on how deeply suspicious of every character it makes the viewer. Pitting our gut instincts against our logical deductions, a good murder mystery keeps the identity of the killer tantalisingly out of reach.
To that end, Only Murders in the Building presents a gallery of plausible suspects in the tenants of the Arconia, some if not guilty of murder, then other vices. The series brushes off the all-too-obvious ones, shortlists a few before revealing the killer, who is sure to make the viewer go “but of course,” rather than “didn’t see that coming.” The reveal may not scratch the more seasoned fan’s itch for gamesmanship. It seldom does. But the show does leave you hankering for more of Martin, Short and Gomez. The trust that the showrunners have in their story is witnessed in the red herring they pull off in the very opening moments of the season premiere. The murder of a tenant (identified only in the finale) that opens the first season turns out to be the mystery central to the second. So, this threat looms in the background even as the trio solve the mystery of Kono’s murder in the foreground.
As the investigation unfolds, the episodes play with form and perspective, demanding the viewers become sleuths themselves over the course of 10 episodes of unmissable appointment TV. Episode 5 tells the story from the perspective of Detective Williams (Da’Vine Joy Randolph), a Black queer policewoman who’s not a big fan of amateur podcasters but has little choice but to work with them because she struggles to have her voice heard in the precinct. The entirely dialogue-free Episode 7 puts us inside the head of one of the suspects in Theo (James Caverly). “The boy from 6B” is the deaf son of Teddy Dimas (Nathan Lane), the deli chain owner and black-market jewellery kingpin who’s also funding the podcast. The episode, told through Theo’s POV, simulates the experience of hearing loss not in total silence, but in distorted, muffled sounds — akin to sensation of experiencing the world while being immersed under water.
Besides Theo and Teddy, the other suspects include a “tie-dye guy” whom Charles saw going up the stairs on the night of the murder; Sting (yes, the musician in a rollicking cameo), who stays in the penthouse apartment in Arconia; Jan (Amy Ryan), the bassoonist whom Charles falls for; Howard Morris (Michael Cyril Creighton), a tenant whose cat Evelyn died the same night as Kono; and Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell), the autocratic tenant board leader. To identify the culprit based on the evidence and parameters of the profile, Oliver imagines the process as one of his theatrical productions in his head. The tenants are rounded up and filtered, like they were auditioning to be the lead, a comment on how true crime docs and podcasts themselves treat real people.
Martin, who created the show with John Hoffman, luxuriates in the meta-ness of intertwining the making of a true-crime podcast within a whodunit, while dismantling the subculture. Charles, Oliver and Mabel are all fans of a true-crime podcast called “All Is Not OK in Oklahoma”, hosted by Cinda Canning (Tina Fey), whose voice and appearance bear similarities to Serial’s Sarah Koenig. The rise of true crime docs and podcasts has triggered a counterwave of satires (American Vandal, A Very Fatal Murder) and parodies (Trial & Error, Done Disappeared), taking aim at their tendency to exploit tragedy for entertainment, and aggrandising it as investigative journalism. “Every true crime story is actually true for someone,” as Charles remarks.
Only Murders in the Building sets up a tangled web of colourful characters, and throws in a smattering of clues and subterfuge to keep us guessing, only to fumble its big reveal. While the series may not deliver on the killer murder mystery some of us had hoped for, it more than makes up for it with the criminally delightful comedy and chemistry between its three stellar leads.
(All ten episodes of Only Murders in the Building are now streaming on Disney+ Hotstar Premium.)