Two old men wonder how to reach out to a young woman. One of them — who describes himself as being in his “very early mid-60s” — suggests calling her, to which the other man says maybe they should text instead. The way he pronounces ‘text,’ with ironic air-quotes and an emphasis on the ‘x’, makes it evident how incredulous he is at the word being used as a verb. Then, baffled by the ways of the presently young generation, one remarks, “Calls bother them for some reason.”
This us-and-themming drives the mystery-comedy Only Murders In The Building, a deeply pleasurable Hulu series streaming in India on Disney+ Hotstar. The old men (actually in their 70s) are Steve Martin and Martin Short, and the young lady flummoxed by their need to sign a name to a text message is Selena Gomez. They are true-crime fans living in the same tony Manhattan apartment building where a man is found dead. Addicted to conspiracies, they are sure one of the many, moneyed residents is a killer. They investigate, and, while at it, decide to launch their own true-crime podcast.
Created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman, Only Murders In The Building starts off as a goofy, witty take on true-crime podcasts before turning genuinely elaborate and twisty, not to mention outlandish, rather like the Hardy Boys stories Gomez’s character grew up obsessing over. It’s a pageturner.
Turning a suspicious eye toward New York neighbours brings up Alfred Hitchcock’s 1954 classic Rear Window, but Only Murders In The Building, a series so fixated with the Manhattan aesthetic that it uses the New Yorker magazine font, borrows most liberally from the New York-est filmmaker of all. In Woody Allen’s 1993 trifle Manhattan Murder Mystery, Diane Keaton shares an elevator with neighbours the night before one of them is found dead. She convinces herself not only that the neighbour killed his wife, but that it’s okay to break into his apartment. Keaton’s fanciful speculations are born out of highly circumstantial observations and guesses, much like the three self-styled gumshoes of this show, too eager to leap onto a limb when levelling a murder accusation at a neighbour — like Sting.
“From The Police, ironically,” nods Gomez’s Mabel, a lonely girl hiding inside oversized coats and headphones. She knows Sting isn’t Peter Gabriel, but enjoys making her grey colleagues believe she knows less than they think. Martin and Short are longtime comedic amigos riffing off one another with practiced effortlessness, but this third ‘amigette’ adds zip as she dryly sizes up the legends and, deadpanning all the way, keeps them on their toes.
Martin, a true comedic master, has pared back over the decades, discarding the rubber-faced fabulousness of The Jerk and Dirty Rotten Scoundrels and the apoplexy of Plains, Trains And Automobiles to settle into a more amiable, everyman role, closer to his Father Of The Bride persona. There is some kookiness to his Charles — a washed-up TV actor who sees Looney Tunes characters in his head — but he generously plays the straight man in the trio. When Charles says “I can turn on the charm,” he does it only so Mabel can ask “Is it on now?”
Short, on the other hand, leans hard into the eccentricity as Oliver, a former Broadway director who derailed his career with an accident-prone musical. Both Oliver and Charles take an avuncular interest in Mabel, but Oliver wants to make sure he is considered the cool uncle. “He’s very wounded, Mabel,” he sighs, speaking of a hurt Charles. “I’m made of stronger stuff.” Performing for laughs even with friends, Oliver has the best lines, like when he tells his dog to stay away from Sting (who has a delightful guest role) by saying “Don’t stand so close to Sting.”
The focus on making the podcast gives the series shape, each episode following a single-narrator structure and zeroing in on an individual question, and while there is some skewering of both podcasters and podcast-fans, there is affection and admiration for the fact that everyone can be a storyteller now, and that successful podcasters can be found in the unlikeliest places. (To those wanting a savage send-up, I’d recommend ‘Podcast News,’ season 32, episode 16 of The Simpsons, on Disney+ Hotstar).
Watching these three is like being with friends inside an escape room. Recording — and halting for retakes of — podcast-narration while stumbling around clues and red herrings gives Only Murders In The Building immediacy and self-awareness. “We continued staring at the jewels for what felt like a beat too long,” says Oliver, beating the audience to the punch as the camera dramatically lingers on a revelation. This is an elegantly filmed comedy and a cosily familiar whodunnit, but with some strikingly modern swerves: one episode, for instance, is narrated by a deaf character, with a silent voiceover.
Imagine if our neighbours could see everything we do. Imagine if they would read into the music blaring from our rooms, our raised voices, our surreptitious dessert deliveries, our houseguests who are really subletters. None of us could do with a glass house, though — as Only Murders In The Building points out — sometimes it’s good to have someone peeking in. Loneliness is murder.
Streaming tip of the week:
Rob Lowe hosts a funny, informative new special called Attack Of The Movie Clichés (Netflix) where various overused film traditions — like ‘The Maverick Cop’ and ‘The White Saviour’ — are explained and illustrated with movie clips old and new. Cue the montage.
Stream of Stories is a column on what to watch online. Raja Sen is a film and TV critic, screenwriter and the author of The Best Baker In The World (2017), a children’s adaptation of The Godfather.