Hulu’s slow-burning ‘Only Murders in the Building’ is comedic twist on true crime

movie still from Only Murders
Hulu/Courtesy

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Grade: 3.5/5.0

Only Hulu would think to cast Selena Gomez, Martin Short and Steve Martin in a comedic murder mystery series.

The streaming network’s latest original television show “Only Murders in the Building” proves that the unlikely trio exceeds expectations as an entertaining ensemble. With only five episodes released as of Sept. 14, the show has already established itself with a star-studded cast, witty humor and an engaging mystery sufficient to keep viewers coming back each week for more.

Set to awkwardly cheesy monologues, viewers first meet Mabel (Selena Gomez), Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin) and Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) as they each stroll through Manhattan to their individual apartments at the distinguished Arconia complex. When a loud siren interrupts their quiet night, Arconia residents are forced to evacuate to a local restaurant, and the unlikely trio comes together over their shared obsession with a popular true-crime podcast. After learning that they were evacuated due to the murder of mysterious fellow resident Tim Kono (Julian Cihi), they decide to investigate Kono’s past while creating their own podcast along the way.

The beginning episodes take their time revealing the tumultuous backstories of Mabel, Oliver and Charles. While the exposition feels slow at times, it helps shape the trio’s unusual dynamic going forward. Early in the show, viewers discover that Mabel is keeping a secret from her two fellow podcasters: Before Kono’s homicide, Mabel knew him as an adolescent and the two used to solve fictitious mysteries around the Arconia. Charles struggles with his romantic past, and Oliver, formerly an esteemed Broadway director, deals with financial issues. Each of the characters’ stories reveals shared heartbreak and loss, and while they were brought together by chance, it’s clear that their companionship is held together by more than their podcasting passions. The trio’s heartwarming relationship makes for a lovely aspect of a rather grim story, and it’s easy for viewers to begin rooting for the characters and their podcast.

Taking inspiration from edge-of-your-seat murder mysteries and weaving in lovable actors make for good television. Short and Martin perform incredibly because of their complementary characters; Oliver’s zany attitude toward life is sprightly compared to the lonely, sarcastic, closed-off Charles. The juxtaposition of the two older men’s conflicting personalities alongside millennial Mabel completes a cast that can appeal to an audience of all ages, especially those who appreciate the occasional one-liner.

In building a strong foundation for the characters, the show’s first five episodes move slowly regarding the actual murder investigation. With episodes running about 30 minutes each, too many subplots can serve as unnecessary distractions to the core drama of solving the case. For example, Charles’ crush on Arconia resident and bassoonist Jan (Amy Ryan) and Oliver’s search to find a stable income seem somewhat irrelevant. While time is spent building rapport between characters through dynamic relationships, sometimes viewers find themselves wanting to skip ahead to the more significant plot development. Though frustrating at times, these minor scenes do help build anticipation. Hopefully, now that the show has laid down its foundation and established strong leading characters, future episodes can move more quickly and focus on the central theme of solving Kono’s homicide.

Considering it was Hulu’s most-watched original comedy on its premiere day as well as across the entire streaming platform, “Only Murders in the Building” is setting itself up to be one of the most popular television shows of the year. Although the series takes its time to divulge its mysteries, the drama-filled plotlines, nuanced humor and intricate relationships make up for the slow-moving pace and certainly keep audience members on their toes. As Charles says to his podcasting companions, “A great murder mystery unpeels itself like an onion!”

Kaitlin Clapinski covers fashion. Contact her [email protected].