Only Murders in the Building review: A warm, witty delight
True crime obsession8
James R | On 01, Sep 2021
This spoiler-free review is based on 8 out of the 10 episodes of Season 1. Already seen the finale? Read our spoiler-filled thoughts here.
Embrace the mess. That’s the advice given by podcasting legend Cinda Canning (Tina Fey) to Charles (Steve Martin), Oliver (Martin Short) and Mabel (Selena Gomez), as they attempt to get their own true crime podcast off the ground. The fact that Cinda’s podcast is called “Everything’s Not OK with Oklahoma” gives you a clue that Only Murders in the Building isn’t a serious programme – the other clue? That it’s really very funny.
Co-created by Martin and John Hoffman, the series begins with the (fictional) death of Tim Kono, a young resident at the Arconia building on New York’s Upper West Side. Who was Tim Kono? That’s the question that Oliver and Charles take it upon themselves to answer. One a washed-up actor, the other an out-of-work director, they both seize the opportunity to fill their long, lonely hours – Charles so that he doesn’t have to dwell on a trauma in his past, Oliver so that he doesn’t have to confront the emptiness of his present, in which he defines his existence through his lavish apartment more than any meaningful relationships. Think Search Party for pensioners, or a modern-day remake of Manhattan Murder Mystery, weaving a poignant exploration of solitude with a satire of true crime tropes and a wry study of people’s obsession with the genre.
It’s that obsession that brings together Charles and Oliver with the Gen Z Mabel, as they each discover they listen to the same show – just as Tim’s body is discovered. “What murder podcast are you all listening to?” sighs Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s wise-cracking, world-weary detective, when the trio first start to poke their noses into the case. But they actually prove quite good at the amateur detecting, from breaking and entering to nosing through people’s rubbish bags.
What unfolds, then, is less a send-up of true crime conventions and more an affectionate love letter to them, as we root for this unlikely team. Their chemistry is superb, full of endearing heart, convincing suspicion and relatable distance. Martin’s former TV detective still recycles his catchphrase at any opportunity (“This sends the investigation in a whole new direction…”) and even learnt how to actually pick locks in real life, both of which add to the feeling of a blurred line between fact and fiction, which may or may not be conscious on his part – an encounter with fans in the street, though, makes it clear what the reality is. Short’s theatrical diva is hysterical in all senses of the word, as he envisions the hunt for a suspect as like a series of auditions, recalling 2017’s Casting JonBenet. Gomez, meanwhile, has her own secrets, which she reveals at an understated but precise pace.
The supporting cast is just as entertaining, from a deliciously extravagant Nathan Lane as chicken tycoon Teddy, who sponsors their podcast, to an intriguingly pensive James Caverly as Teddy’s deaf son, Theo, not to mention a laugh-out-loud turn from High Maintenance’s Michael Cyril Creighton as Ed Kemper-esque cat owner Howard, who has a strangely stocked freezer.
The production design – including a gorgeous set of animated opening titles – is deceptively detailed, with each apartment’s interior decor reflecting each character’s personality and the courtyard wonderfully filling up with the bassoon playing of Jan (Amy Ryan). The latter leads to a sweet duet with Martin on the concertina and a string of equally sweet and silly encounters, including a Naked Gun-worthy game of Scrabble.
There is a mystery to be solved – and a person’s life to be mourned, as people repeatedly point out – but what’s wonderful about Only Murders in the Building is the way it uses that mystery to open up all kinds of surprising flourishes. From Charles being haunted by cartoon characters and using superfans as a resource to a celebrity cameo that’s inspiredly funny, this eccentric and unabashedly daft caper is a knowing but genuinely unpredictable watch – you’ll giggle with delight when you see Episode 4’s title.
But it’s also a sincere and sweet meditation on loneliness and connection in the modern age, from the mature relationship that blossoms between Charles and Jan to Charles and Oliver’s unspoken but loyal friendship. One episode unfolds from Theo’s perspective, in an inventive directorial decision that places personal empathy over easy pastiche.
At the end of the day, the whodunnit isn’t really that important: the mystery that draws us in is the inter-generational bond that forms between a couple of old men and a millennial. From the committed slapstick and constant stream of one-liners (and song lyrics), though, it becomes clear that there’s no mystery to their camaraderie: they’re just three people who grow closer by sharing a thing they love. The result has more warmth than Search Party, and lower stakes – one threatening car ride is swiftly reversed minutes later – but the 30-minute episodes fly by with wit and laughter, as well as a gently compelling undercurrent of suspense. It might not be the most thrilling programme, but that’s all part of its charm. Embrace the mess and you’ll be rewarded with one of the most unexpected joys of 2021.
Only Murders in the Building is available on Disney+ UK, as part of a £7.99 monthly subscription or a £79.99 yearly subscription.