Sly, boisterous, and a bit melancholy, Hulu’s Only Murders In The Building would be a great pick-me-up even if we weren’t in the doldrums of late summer. The dramedy, from creators Steve Martin, John Hoffman, and Dan Fogelman, glides out of the gate, introducing characters and conflict with great elan and efficiency. There are no opening night jitters for Martin and his fellow leads Selena Gomez and Martin Short; a three-shot in an elevator establishes them as a cohesive trio even before they start investigating a crime (or what they believe to be a crime) in the massive pre-war building they all live in on the Upper West Side.
Like so many people, Charles Haden Savage (Martin), Oliver Putnam (Short), and Mabel Mora (Gomez) are obsessed with true-crime podcasts. Like so many New Yorkers, they’re simultaneously oblivious to and and all too aware of each other’s existence at the Arconia, a building so massive, it takes up an entire city block. The Arconia (which real-life locals will recognize as the Belnord residences) is a neighborhood unto itself, with its own populace and gossip—both of which are shaken up in the premiere episode. But first, Jamie Babbitt (who directed the first two episodes) takes us on a tour of some of the co-op’s well-appointed apartments, where Curt Beech’s set designs stoke real-estate fantasies as effectively as Zillow.
After being evacuated from their building, Mabel, Oliver, and Charles have dinner, where they bond over their love of a Serial-esque podcast with its own Sarah Koenig-like host (played by Tina Fey). The three neighbors share their theories about the podcast, All Is Not OK In Oklahoma. But when they finish their meal, they fully expect to go back to vaguely acknowledging each other’s presence. Only, a seismic shift occurred while they were having dinner—one of their neighbors, a standoffish young man named Tim Kono (Julian Cihi), was found dead, apparently by suicide.
Charles, Oliver, and Mabel all have their own reasons for questioning the police’s findings, just as Detective Williams (Da’Vine Joy Randolph, who’s also been sleuthing it up on Ultra City Smiths) has her reasons for telling them to stay out of it. Mostly, she’s just sick of true-crime obsessives trying to turn everything into the case of the month (what “crime of the century” becomes when you adjust for modern attention spans), especially since she knows it’s just a matter of time before their heads are turned by another sensational story. That doesn’t stop Charles, Mabel, and Oliver—the latter of whom has already spent thousands on sound equipment before the first episode has been written—from launching their own podcast (also named Only Murders In The Building).
The detective and the would-be gumshoes are tailor-made foils for each other, their overlapping investigations ripe for tension. But Only Murders In The Building has something else on its mind. As with Mare Of Easttown, the murder mystery is really just a vehicle for more of a character-driven story. The series does shed light on the life of Tim Kono, and how his death affects even those who aren’t recording a concertina-backed podcast. But the whodunnit becomes less urgent as the season unfolds, and Oliver, Mabel, and Charles become an unlikely yet immensely watchable team. They don’t just bridge the generational divide; they fairly dance on top of it.
There’s a real sweetness to the “cultural exchange” that goes on between Charles, the former star of a procedural; Mabel, a twentysomething with a Muscadet-dry wit and a home renovation on her hands; and Oliver, an improvident theater director whose only sign of restraint is insisting on appetizers for dinner instead of an entrée. Yes, they’re all worried about the possibility that one of their neighbors is a murderer. But their string-and-photo-covered white boards can wait until Mabel teaches Charles that he doesn’t need to sign all of his texts because he’s already in her contacts list (under the name “Charles [Old]”) or educates Oliver on what a “rando” is. It’s not exactly a two-way street, though. The guys are sure they can teach Mabel some things as well; instead, they get flustered when she pretends not to know who Sting is—and not because the Grammy winner shows a different side here.
Mabel could easily be positioned as the kind of impossibly hip, droll Millennial that Baby Boomers (and probably a lot of Gen Xers) fear and therefore like to blame for everything. Only Murders is more generous with its characters (on both sides of the age gap) than that, and more ambitious in its storytelling. Mabel benefits just as much from the relationship with fellow podcasters; in particular, her friendship with Charles, who insists he’s alone by choice as a means to protect himself, underlines just how emotionally shuttered she’s become. It’s part of what helps her reconnect with a childhood friend, Oscar (Aaron Dominguez), whose return midseason destabilizes the group a bit.
It certainly doesn’t hurt that Mabel’s compatriots in crime-podcasting are played by such inveterate charmers as Martin and Short. One of Only Murders’ greatest and most abundant pleasures is watching Oliver “note” Charles to death (figuratively, of course); there’s no line reading good enough for the fictional director of the Splash musical. On the surface, these are roles that don’t seem to require much stretching for the frequent co-stars and longtime friends: Martin is reliably great as a strait-laced man who really only needs the slightest of pushes to go over the edge, while Short plays to the rafters in an effort to drown out his character’s deep-seated insecurities. But they find poignant new notes in these deceptively familiar tunes (their off-the-cuff ode to Long Island in episode four notwithstanding).
Only Murders marks more of a departure for Gomez, who went from Waverly Place to pop stardom before signing on to co-lead (and co-executive produce) this giddy sendup of true-crime obsession. But Gomez is right at home in a cast with two comedic legends, even as she stakes out territory all her own, stomping down the New York streets in her “armor” (sunglasses, headphones, chic coat after chic coat). The Disney alum’s deadpan is more fearsome than whatever’s going on at the Arconia. When she cracks that “old white guys are only afraid of colon cancer and societal change,” you kind of want to offer Oliver and Charles some salve.
All the ribbing is ultimately good-natured, no matter whose turn it is to be taken down a peg. Even the podcast parody, spot-on as it is—at one point, Charles exclaims he’s “fallen in love with so many dead people” because of the true-crime genre—isn’t meant to really take aficionados to task. (Still, one of the best jokes in the premiere involves the fake sponsors for the fake Serial podcast.) Only Murders In The Building engenders curiosity, first and foremost, whether it’s about your neighbors, what’s in the cultural zeitgeist (be it a podcast or the latest murder mystery show), or why someone might keep others at arm’s length. If you find personal revelations as thrilling as the resolution of a crime, it could even become your next TV obsession.