'Only Murders in the Building' Review: Suspense Meets Serendipity

Hulu's original series 'Only Murders in the Building' combines good old-fashioned comedy (inoffensive and innocuous) with a spell-binding murder mystery.

Joshua Lezmi - Author

Aug. 23 2021, Published 11:58 a.m. ET

'Only Murders in the Building'
Source: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

Only Murders in the Building commences like many a classic whodunnit — with a sneak peek at the show’s final moments before turning back the clock to start from square one. Yet, the Hulu original does not rely on these narrative tropes as shortcuts to build tension; it exploits them, and in doing so, perfectly parodies the late-20th century detective shows and murder mysteries it commemorates.

Created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman (Grace and Frankie, Good Boy), Only Murders in the Building stars Martin opposite his long-time collaborator Martin Short and Disney alum Selena Gomez. The unlikely trio — banded together by an affinity for the same true-crime podcast — become amateur detectives committed to discovering who killed building resident Tim Kono.

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Selena Gomez, Martin Short, Steve Martin in 'Only Murders in the Building' Episode 1, "True Crime"
Source: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu

Only Murders in the Building

Our Rating

Only Murders in the Building seamlessly combines humor and homicide, creating a laugh-out-loud suspense story.

Release Date: August 31, 2021 (episodes air Tuesday)

Network: Hulu

Cast: Steve Martin, Martin Short, Selena Gomez, Amy Ryan, Nathan Lane

Creators: John Hoffman, Steve Martin

Rating: TV-MA

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On their hunt to find the killer, the show weaves suspense through serendipity. Charles just so happens to know how to pick a lock from his years playing the lead character in the cop drama Brazos. Not to mention, everyone always seems to be getting in the elevator at the exact same time. It’s intentionally “too convenient,” “too coincidental,” “too easy,” but it works. It works alongside the show’s incorporation of fantastical elements like camera effects that show objects and people “bouncing back” from a fall (literally and metaphorically). Such cinematic choices highlight plot twists or hint at the prevalent thematic undertone — revitalization — that will bubble beneath the surface for the run of the show.

The story and the stylistic telling augment each other, creating a murder mystery that is just as imaginative as it is narratively grounded. And moments that could easily elicit an eye roll (or a smirk at best) — become laugh-out-loud funny with dynamic duo Martin and Short delivering the dialogue.

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Martin plays Charles, a slightly bitter man who is two steps away from closing off his heart for good. And Short plays his antithesis, the flamboyant and over-the-top theatre director Oliver (who can’t land a gig). Charles is focused and methodical; Oliver is spontaneous and flighty. Short is at home as the close-talking, boundary-breaking, oversharer across from Martin’s I-don’t-have-time-for-this Charles.

Charles and Oliver work off of each other and generate a dynamic that is argumentative on the surface but loving underneath. Their on-screen relationship is comfortably similar to the off-screen one — best described as bickering meets brotherhood — that Martin and Short are known to boast. Yet, the actors’ real-life bond does not take viewers out of the experience (as could have been the case). Rather, it enhances the characterizations the show relies upon for humor.

Steve Martin, Martin Short in 'Only Murders in the Building' Episode 1, "True Crime"
Source: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu
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As for Gomez, she exists as the grounding force between the two. She is the jaded and quick-talking millennial, Mabel, who understands that you can’t “cover the entirety of the internet” in an afternoon of googling. She is often one step ahead of the old guys who come to care for her like a couple of uncles. Oliver relies on a catchphrase (“Oh, she’s good”), which he says whenever Mabel makes a small leap to the most logical of conclusions. The relationship between the trio plays heavily into the murder mystery at the center; their histories, as well as their identifying qualities and character flaws, prove consequential to the developing investigation.

Selena Gomez in 'Only Murders in the Building' Episode 1, "True Crime"
Source: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu
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Only Murders in the Building rarely slows its pace, carefully selecting its pensive moments. Snippets from the primary characters' pasts surface occasionally, expanding the possibilities circling the investigation while painting our leads' motivations and individual stakes in the case. The more you know about someone — the more you trust someone to be “good” — the more the lines of objectivity blur. The plot centers Gomez, Martin, and Short amid a sea of many satisfying cameos.

There’s Nathan Lane as a Broadway producer (how apropos), Amy Ryan as Charles’ love interest, and Sting as a dog-hating resident. All get their moment to claim the camera without the show ever becoming a battle of stars ready for their close-up. Familiar faces pop up frequently to add to the mystery while bringing a little humor to homicide.

Only Murders in the Building takes the classic murder mystery formula and spices it up with old-fashioned comedy. Quippy remarks and battling personalities serve as the undercurrent, preventing the macabre nature of murder from ever seizing the show’s tone. The series proves that comedy and murder can still be inoffensive and innocuous rather than indecent and indigestible — that is if Steve Martin is the genius manning the mission. Martin may be a satire and slapstick guy, but he knows how to string suspense.

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