Mystery and intrigue crop up around every corner in Only Murders in the Building (★★★★☆), but one puzzle that may go unsolved is whether the show’s stars, Steve Martin and Martin Short, negotiated which would get the showier role. Or, did Short just take it upon himself to steal nearly every scene and moment he’s on-camera?
Not that one comedy legend hogs all the spotlight from another, but, as the slumping Broadway director Oliver Putnam in Hulu’s well-crafted comic whodunnit, Short makes the most of every grand gesture, throwaway line, and all the double-takes in between.
Ollie is an indefatigable showman, whose loud theatricality barely disguises the pain he bears for the colossal flop that wrecked his career, and thus his life. Floundering in more than motivation, he craves a jump-start. The same goes for his neighbor, Charles-Haden Savage, played by Martin with subdued comedic style, and dare we say, debonair ease.
Charles, an actor who expects pretty much everyone he meets to recognize him from his ’90s TV cop hit Brazzos, is navigating his own slump. He and Ollie both get the jump-start they need when they team up with twentysomething neighbor Mabel (Selena Gomez) to solve a murder inside their historic pre-war building on New York’s Upper West Side.
The unlikely trio of Gomez plus two Amigos seems like a cross-generational combo hatched by demographics-crunching software at Hulu labs. Yet the team’s rapport works, and in various configurations, as the three leads pair off into various duos here and there across the season’s ten episodes.
Their investigation leads them all into danger, and stumbling onto other mysteries, like, for example, how does young Mabel afford an apartment in this tony building?
A grand old Gilded Age residence, the fictional Arconia sits on a lot of real estate — an entire city block — and might be home to countless untold, unsolved crimes (the series has just been green-lit for a second season). As indicated in the title, the building plays a major role in the story, not only as an intricate location (actually shot in and around Manhattan’s The Belnord), but as a hub for the show’s web of characters and great character actors.
Tony-winner Jayne Houdyshell swears a hilarious mean streak as the building’s board president Bunny, and Nathan Lane uncovers layers of nuance as neighbor Teddy Dimas, deli king and occasional Broadway investor. As nosy neighbor Uma, Jackie Hoffman has few lines, yet still delivers pages’ worth of dialogue with a handful of pissed-off glares. Sting even pops up playing himself as the building’s most well-known resident — next to “Brazzos,” that is.
Not only does the former Police man become embroiled in our trio’s murder investigation, he inspires hands-down the show’s best one-liner, delivered with a perfectly light touch by Short. The entire series, created by Martin and John Hoffman, moves adroitly, bounced along by Siddhartha Khosla’s excellent music, and solid, old-fashioned caper gusto.
Still, Only Murders takes risks, namely in its willingness to switch up perspectives in ways that drastically affect the atmosphere — but, fortunately, only add to the storytelling. That story expands organically, turning around every corner of the Arconia, searching behind every door and secret compartment.
While never graphically violent, the show doesn’t shy away from a shot or two of blood and gore. As Mabel reminds her fellow detectives, after they turn their investigation into a true crime podcast, murder isn’t merely a puzzle to be solved. The victim — or victims — should be respected, their loss of life taken more seriously than as grisly fodder for detached listeners. So, the gravitas of death is felt throughout the halls of the Arconia. But even at its darkest, most macabre moments, Only Murders dances an elegant soft-shoe, serving up spirited mystery-comedy that’s expertly tapped into both sides of that equation.
New episodes of Only Murders in the Building are available for streaming every Tuesday on Hulu. Visit www.hulu.com.
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