Hulu’s only murders in the Building features two veteran comedians. Steve Martin plays self-impressed men, Martin Short plays show-biz phonies who have turned up to 11.
The actors fit in easily and predictably at first: Martin plays Charles, an actor who is living off royalties from his old cop show. Short is Oliver, a struggling theater director who hasn’t had a hit for decades.
The podcast is a popular true-crime podcast that both men love. After a mysterious death in their Upper West Side apartment, they decide to create their own podcast.
You could be forgiven for thinking that the series would be more expansive and manic than it actually is. The opening minutes of the episode are a good example of this. Martin walks down a UWS street wearing a porkpie cap while his voice reads a gravid, overwritten bit. Short is wearing a flashy purple jacket and narrating his outrageous thoughts about New York City.
It won’t be until halfway through the first episode that you realize those monologues, and another one delivered by Selena Gomez, Mabel, are parodies of a type of portentous narration common in true-crime podcasts.
This is just one clue that the series is smarter and more into the joke than you might think.
The podcast they listen to is called All Isn’t OK in Oklahoma. This is a solid piece of business. Martin and Short both modulate their performances to bring out the humanity in their characters. Martin’s Charles can be a bit rigid and arrogant. But he is mostly a lonely and sad man who struggles to connect with others. Oliver is the showbiz smarmy phony Short has made a career of ridiculing. But he’s dialed down. Short is a legend. He can be funny when he’s doing well, but Oliver findsthe humors instead of threatening them.
Gomez’ Mabel is another thing that the show does well. She often acts as a cool, sardonic foil to Martin and Short’s “clueless uncle” vibe. It’s the grounded energy and secrets that her character holds that propels the series.
Sure, Only murders in the Buildingmakes launching a podcast seem incredibly easy. Oliver’s method of recording, where he waves a microphone in the direction of his subject, would earn him a harsh talking-to from any producer. But it’s amazing that someone with Oliver’s experience could quickly learn the intricacies of equalizing and compressing multiple audio tracks.
These are just shortcuts and workarounds, but they can be forgiven because the story works. The twists and turns keep increasing as their amateur murder investigation becomes more complex. As a result, everyone gets a backstory that links neatly (but not tooneatly), to the main plot. Eight episodes out of ten were screened to critics. They feature moments of dreamlike surreality that, instead of distracting from the main plot, deftly layer emotions the characters aren’t ready to share in dialogue.
Only Murders In The Building doesn’t end up being the absurd farce that its plot and stars suggest. That’s a good thing. It is more muted and real. And it has a good sense of who its characters and what they want. It’s also quite funny, which is not surprising. However, it features grounded and satisfyingly nuanced performances by Martin and Short.