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BARNHART

Only Murders in the Building Is a Throwback Mystery for the Hulu Age

Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez star in the Murder, She Wrote reboot we didn’t know we needed.
  • Selena Gomez, Martin Short and Steve Martin in Only Murders in the Building. (Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)
    Selena Gomez, Martin Short and Steve Martin in Only Murders in the Building. (Photo by: Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)
    Overwhelmed by Peak TV? Aaron Barnhart is your guide to the good, the great, and the skippable. Subscribe to get all his Primetimer reviews.

    Once upon a time, there were three amigos named Chevy, Martin and Steve (who was also a Martin). They made a lovely cinematic absurdity 35 years ago, and two of them have been friends and collaborators ever since. As for the other guy, I’d like to quote something that Lorne Michaels told a reporter who asked what happened to Chevy. “The only thing that I know consistently, but as a universal thing in show business, is that it’s always, always about reinvention,” Michaels said. “You have to get offstage so you can come back and make another entrance.”

    And that little insight brings us to the latest wonderful thing that dos hombres — Martin and Martin — are up to. Only Murders in the Building, which drops Aug. 31 on Hulu, is a sweet, silly, occasionally hilarious 10-part mystery set in a New York apartment building. It’s laden with only-in-Manhattan jokes about parking, co-op meetings and the like. (Not overthinking it, the designer of the show’s logo went with the New Yorker font.) As for the murder in the building, the stakes are so low that I fully expected an elevator to open and see Angela Lansbury standing there. Instead we see Sting in the elevator, playing himself. He’s a suspect in the case because, you know, he’s Sting.

    And yet Only Murders in the Building feels fresh and interesting and you should absolutely watch every new episode as it drops on Hulu (or Disney+ if you’re reading this from outside the U.S.). It is, indeed, a reinvention. It reinvents the cozy detective show of olde, transforming it into a limited series for streaming TV with all the options that opens up. The one episode not filmed inside the large apartment complex where production occurred earlier this year (COVID-free, by the way) is a woozy, slow-motion chase that winds up in New Jersey. Another episode is almost completely silent, with no dialogue until the very last scene.

    And instead of grumpy old Clark Griswold as the third amigo, Martin and Martin brought on delightful Gen-Z Selena Gomez, who is also, I understand, quite a singer. (Am I dating myself?) For good measure, Nathan Lane’s in the building, too.

    I can’t imagine what kind of relentless ambition and creative stamina it must take to keep finding ways to stay relevant in a business as unforgiving as show. Doubtless it helps that Martin and Martin are two white men who came to prominence at a time when popular culture still had scale. Did you notice Hulu flogging Only Murders in the Building all through the Tokyo Games? That’s because your average streaming star is unrecognizable to most viewers. But all of us of a certain age can remember at least one of the Martins’ movies — Three Amigos or the Father of the Bride filmsor caught their Netflix comedy special a while back.

    Along with veteran TV writer John Hoffman and This Is Us creator Dan Fogelman, Steve Martin created Only Murders in the Building, casting himself, Short and Gomez as three building residents who form an unlikely crime-solving trio. They only have two things in common: they love true-crime podcasts and each of them is needy, in ways that are slowly revealed during the show. When a resident suddenly dies in his room and it’s ruled a suicide, each of them performs a true-crime buff’s analysis of the situation and is immediately suspicious. Soon they've banded together not only to solve a case but to make a true-crime podcast out of it. Maybe someday the host and producer of their favorite podcast (Tina Fey in her customary over-the-top role) will pay them notice.

    Don’t be fooled by the TV-MA rating, which was triggered by some F-bombs: This is good old-fashioned cozy television, reinvented for the Hulu era.

    The first three episodes of Only Murders in the Building premiere on Hulu Tuesday August 31, with future episodes releasing Tuesdays through October 19th.

    Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.

    TOPICS: Only Murders In The Building , Hulu, Steve Martin and Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget for the Rest of Your Life, Martin Short, Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, Tina Fey