Steve Martin and friends track a killer in splendid new Hulu comedy mystery
Steve Martin, whose career path has intersected television since before he was a writer and an occasional presence on “The Smothers Brothers Comedy Hour” — his first TV appearance was in 1966, playing the banjo on a Southern California kids show called “Dusty’s Attic” — has in his mid-70s co-created (with John Hoffman) a splendidly funny, involving and one might even say youthful series, “Only Murders in the Building.” Co-starring the slightly younger Martin Short and the much younger Selena Gomez, it premieres Tuesday on Hulu.
The stars play unacquainted neighbors in a grand apartment house on the Upper West Side of Manhattan who meet killing time in a nearby restaurant, where they find they are all fans of the same true-crime podcast, “Not All is OK in Oklahoma,” and bond intensely over this single issue. (In other respects, antipathy reigns.) When they return to the building they learn that a body has been discovered; they go snooping, and before long they have embarked upon an investigation and podcast of their own.
Likening themselves to “Donny and Marie without the sexual tension,” comedians Steve Martin and Martin Short have been touring North America with a side-splitting variety show that includes stand-up humor, music, fake ventriloquism, goofy childhood photos and even a human bagpipe.
Martin plays Charles, a largely out-of-work actor, seemingly living off the spoils and residuals from the detective series “Brazzos,” in which he starred in the 1990s and whose catchphrases their investigations give him the opportunity to quote. (He points it out when he does.) Short’s Oliver is a theater director living in hopes of a future success but whose desperation may be measured by the names he drops. (Past productions include “Tuesdays at Bernie’s,” a “dual adaptation of ‘Tuesdays with Morrie’ and ‘Weekend at Bernie’s,’” and a disastrous musical version of the mermaid movie “Splash!”) Mabel, played by Gomez, a young person who is living in her rich aunt’s apartment, purportedly to redesign it, is in some respects the stabilizing third wheel, although at times she threatens to be a shaky one.
Given that everything past the first episode qualifies as a spoiler, even if it will be made moot by further spoilers, I will be vague. But the changing perspective that new information brings is not only one of the show’s pleasures, it’s also a theme: “Only Murders” is a mystery about mysteries and how they draw you in and keep you in, echoing the podcasts the characters love and want to emulate. On a deeper level, it’s about being lonely and and finding connection. Charles, Oliver and Mabel have all had happier lives, have lost people. Charles keeps others at arm’s length; Oliver’s intensity, and what he imagines is his charm attack, makes it hard for them to get close; Mabel is a woman of melancholic mystery. The murder betters their lot.
Though not exactly what you’d call a team, Martin and Short are friends with professional history, going back at least to the 1986 “Three Amigos!” (another Martin co-write). There were “Father of the Bride” and its sequel. Martin appeared in three of the six episodes of “Maya & Marty,” Short’s 2016 variety show with Maya Rudolph, and on the first episode of Short’s improvised interview show “Primetime Glick.” Their theatrical double act “An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life” became a Netflix special in 2018.
When not engaged in aggressive silliness (and sometimes when engaged in it), Martin the writer is something of a romantic, even a sentimentalist; “Roxanne” adapted “Cyrano de Bergerac,” “A Simple Twist of Fate” updated “Silas Marner.” “L.A. Story,” whose passages of magic realism are echoed here in a small way, is all about love, of a place and a person. There is a healthy sprinkling of sideways humor too: as seen in a clip from “Brazzos,” the character’s signature move is to punctuate a statement by flossing his teeth; a podcast is sponsored by “the Rand Corporation, the Milton and Miriam Swan Corporation for the Arts and for Dissolving the Federal Reserve, and Trader Joe’s, with additional support from Royal Crown Cruises, the Royal Crown Prince of Dubai and listeners like you.” But the story exists for the most part in the world we know, and at times it will turn surprisingly serious. (“Every true crime story is actually true for someone,” muses Charles.) Yet the differing tones mesh.
Short is 71, Martin 76, and you watch them at first with a kind of concern, the way you might any performer or creative artist in their eighth decade, with a wary eye out for the shaky hand, the weak knee, the cloudy upper vocal range — but also for the person you might recall from earlier days and works, still alive in there. Given the violence with which they threw themselves, bodily, into their early comedy, a milder approach is to be expected, but both still possess a comic physicality that seems to crank up as the series progresses, the pace quickens and the stakes grow more dangerous. There may be one or two too many preemptive jokes about age — they can’t manage the tech, get the kidspeak wrong — not a few of which Short’s Oliver makes about Martin’s Charles. But they are funny, so more welcome than not, and if they state the obvious it’s only to make it clear that the subjects are way ahead of you on this and they are doing fine.
The parts fit the players so well that one would suppose each had designed his own. Charles exploits Martin’s natural sweetness, his streak of primness and reserve; Oliver, as intense as Ed Grimley, mines Short’s madness. (Oliver: “Do you consent to being recorded? Just say anything to agree.” Neighbor: “No, please.” Oliver: “Thanks, perfect.”) Gomez, whose performance runs to the deadpan and doubting, is just the anchor the two men require — she’s there for ballast more than energy, exactly what one might not expect from the junior partner. A manic pixie is not what the story calls for.
Even the minor supporting roles are well-conceived and cast; the major ones include Tina Fey as the superstar podcaster the three admire, Nathan Lane as a deli king and past backer of Oliver’s theatrical ventures and Sting as Sting. Amy Ryan has an increasingly substantial role as a bassoonist who lives in the building and whose practicing makes Charles happy. Da’Vine Joy Randolph is a police detective eventually drawn into the adventure — and this is an adventure. That the Hardy Boys books, in all their blue-spined loveliness, are a visual and thematic motif is of course not a random choice.
The problem with mysteries is that they require solutions, not just conclusions, and a poor finish can spoil what’s gone before. With 10 episodes to fill, there are naturally going to be a lot of twists and turns, and some of the late-season plotting does seem designed to keep the balls in the air a little longer and the pool stocked with red herrings. Given how very much I like “Only Murders,” I’m hoping for a stuck landing and that the killer doesn’t turn out to be the person one has had no reason to suspect, as when a sunny type seemingly on the right side of things begins sneering and growling as soon as the finger points his way. Still, I would not expect anything along the lines of Martin’s “The Man With Two Brains,” in which Merv Griffin turns out to be a serial killer. I can only say that, with eight episodes sent out for review, Charles, Oliver and Mabel are no more anxious to know the answer than I am.
‘Only Murders in the Building’
When: Any time
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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