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The series feels a bit like if you asked Paul Rudnick to adapt one of Paul Auster’s novels of mysterious existential alienation, replacing some, but not all, of its richer undercurrents with pop-culture-savvy quips. Maybe the pieces don’t completely mesh, but with a cast this special and an effective enough whodunit to keep viewers charging ahead from one episode to the next, it’s a quibble, not a condemnation, to lament the prioritizing of flailing comedy over opportunities for depth.
Created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman, Only Murders has the privileged, erudite preciousness of a New Yorker piece. It’s all set in and around the Arconia, a fictional West Side apartment building exclusive enough to house Sting, but perhaps a few years past its peak. That description extends to long-fallow theater director Oliver (Martin Short) and to actor Charles (Martin), star of a long-running, half-forgotten broadcast procedural and absolutely nothing else. Kicked out of their respective apartments by an apparent fire alarm, Charles and Oliver bond with Mabel (Selena Gomez) — too young to be named Mabel or living in the Arconia — over a shared love of true crime podcasts. They’re three strangers, but when a body is discovered in the building, Charles, Oliver and Mabel reject the initial determination of suicide and launch an amateur investigation as well as a true crime podcast of their own.
The Arconia is a stately building, but like so many New York City residences, it’s a building where people live stacked on top of each other, sharing the same recycled sounds and smells, without ever interacting. Through the eight half-hour episodes sent to critics (of 10 total), I don’t think we’ve met anybody at the Arconia who’s living with somebody else. The combination of loneliness and compulsive voyeurism in one of the busiest cities in the world is the story’s backbone.
There are, in fact, times when the show presents this collective isolation — special credit to production designer Curt Beech for the sad and stylish specificity of each apartment — in ways that are more successful than the intended comedy, which runs the gambit between nerdy observations about podcasts, reference-driven humor that’s often intentionally out-of-date, and Martin Short falling out of chairs and flailing his limbs. Sometimes it’s very clever, sometimes it’s very obvious, sometimes it’s desperate in ways that reflect the underlying desperation that these characters are living. And then sometimes it’s just desperate.
The funniest thing in Only Murders in the Building may be how a show built around certified legends Martin and Short is stolen by Gomez. It isn’t exactly “stolen,” I guess, given that Gomez is a generationally admired multihyphenate and an executive producer on this series. Nobody is going to come away from the show with a new appreciation of the veteran stars, while there should be a full celebration of how Gomez makes every single one of her lines funnier through delivery choices that include a withering deadpan but go well behind that. So much of what’s written for Gomez could be “Aren’t millennials odd?” toss-offs that instead become either hilarious or infused with melancholy thanks to her choices. I’m sure Gomez has peers who could have made Mabel comparably funny, but less sure that anybody else could have given her the same bruised poignancy.
Martin and Short are tasked mainly with playing their respective hits. With his lampoon of a comical ’80s TV persona, and his character’s romantic arc with a bassoonist (Amy Ryan), Martin is given more room for versatility, and even has the chance to showcase his skills with the concertina (a banjo might have been too cumbersome). I wish Short’s performance range had been afforded similar consideration. When he gets to strip away Oliver’s absurd bravado, he’s very good, but he spends most of the series in a far broader, more cartoonish place.
The supporting and guest casts are great, with cameos that I don’t want to spoil. Suffice it to say that Sting appears and is quite funny as himself, Nathan Lane enjoyably avoids playing himself as a deli owner with financial connections to Oliver, Da’Vine Joy Randolph is caustic fun as the lead detective on the case, and James Caverly is terrific in a gimmick-driven seventh episode that works best if you go in cold.
That episode is directed by Cherien Dabis, part of a helming team that also features Jamie Babbit, Gillian Robespierre and Don Scardino, all of whom successfully keep Only Murders moving along as a functional mystery. If you stop being curious about the central case, you might fixate on the spotty humor, but there are cliffhangers and changes of course that I found much more effective than, say, the geographically comparable HBO mystery The Undoing.
The pleasures in Only Murders in the Building, if not always the same from episode to episode, should be enough to maintain a grasp on viewers who might be less amused by jokes about podcast sponsors, not-really-hilarious “hilarious” stories about Liza Minnelli, or rampant mockery of Long Island. I’m curious how the series will end, and maybe more curious about what this platform will do for Selena Gomez’s future opportunities.
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