By Emma Howell
Photo courtesy of Hulu.
There’s nothing that catches eyes quite like true crime. It’s one of the most popular genres of all media- podcasts, TV shows, documentaries, books- and Hulu’s new series, Only Murders in the Building both profits from and mocks this cultural preoccupation.
Only Murders centers around an unlikely trio- Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin), Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), and Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez)- who are brought together by the suspicious suicide of another tenant in their apartment complex. The show chronicles their attempts to solve his murder and, more importantly, to make their own true-crime podcast about his mysterious demise.
The premise is evidently self-aware and the show, which is often more comedy than drama, makes full use of this approach. Charles and Oliver, both entertainment veterans, are much more focused on the podcast than the crime itself. At one point, while talking to a sobbing mourner, Oliver complains that “the crying is covering the dialogue.” The main characters are inspired by a faux-Serial with Tina Fey taking Sarah Koenig’s place. The title of the podcast is even the same as the show which refers to an argument where Charles declares that instead of expanding their focus they will only cover murders in the building.
Fast-paced and never boring, the show’s blend of comedy and drama allows it to make creative stylistic choices that are rarely seen in sitcoms, much less dramas. The picking of a primary suspect is a Broadway casting call and Charles’s inner demons are represented by Bugs Bunny. The most recent episode was even done entirely in American Sign Language.
Though the show has flaws, they’re mostly subjective. Only Murders is an incredibly character-driven show, and to the writers’ and actors’ credit, all of the characters are both multi-dimensional and well-played; they’re people that you believe could exist. That said, because they’re so reminiscent of reality, they can be just as annoying as real people. This is all to say that it’s probably a character flaw of my own that I hate Martin Short’s character Oliver this much. Oliver spends most of the show passive-aggressively insulting the rest of the cast and borrowing money from his endlessly patient family and friends. Every time he’s on-screen (which, as he’s one of the main leads, is often), I’m reminded that this man has no job, makes no effort to support himself, and yet lives in what has to be one the most expensive apartments I’ve ever seen by taking money from his son’s young family.
That sort of venom generally doesn’t enhance the viewing experience.
In the show’s defense, comedy has a long tradition of unlikeable characters (unlikable people are a lot less boring than their prosocial counterparts) and Only Murders has some really great moments. The intergenerational friendship between Mabel, Charles, and Oliver, for example, is both funny and extremely sweet, and the romance between Charles and Jan (Amy Ryan), his bassoon-playing neighbor, has led to Slate declaring that Only Murders in the Building is “the most romantic show on TV.”
It’s also interesting how apolitical Only Murders is, especially for a show centered around lampooning true crime. Even in an intensely political media culture, crime fiction stands out as a contentious genre because the deep flaws in our police and carceral systems inevitably make an appearance. Many recent shows, most prominent among them being When They See Us and Making a Murderer have focused on how pre-existing prejudice, mismanagement, and outright corruption have led to innocent people being imprisoned for decades. Social appetite for true crime also isn’t entirely unbiased- for example, many commenters have focused on the “missing white woman syndrome,” which refers to the media favoring coverage of crimes affecting young, white, upper-class women over marginalized victims. Even the target audience of true crime is in some ways socially significant; true crime, rather than being the domain of charming old men, is generally very popular with young women. Psychotherapist Rhea Gandhi suggested that this may be because “in reality, women are often the victims or survivors of crime, rather than perpetrators. Perhaps we are drawn to this genre in search of a sense of justice.”
The show pays lip service to these sorts of themes largely in regards to Selena Gomez’s character, Mabel. She opens the show by fantasizing about brutally killing a would-be-attacker, but generally would rather have an episode where the cast bakes special guest star Sting a turkey so he’ll admit to poisoning a bulldog than tackle anything too serious. While I’m in many ways glad that Only Murders in the Building doesn’t deal with topics that heavy, it would be a much harder watch if it had. I think it functions better as a show in its own right than a satire of the genre.
Removing it from the larger context of true crime, Only Murders in the Building is not only a fun, light-hearted comedy but a compelling portrayal of loneliness. Oliver, Charles, and Mabel are very different people, sure, but they all end the night by going home, alone, to their empty apartments. Oliver has a strained relationship with his son; Charles’s last relationship ended badly; Mabel’s last real group of friends fell apart a decade ago after one of them (allegedly) killed the other. Their podcast is an attempt at making money but more than that, it’s an attempt at getting attention. The show is about the type of loneliness that makes you so desperate to be admired (much less liked!) that you’ll trawl through trash, run into an active crime scene, and trust a blood-covered stranger because they say you’re a friend.
In short, after a year in isolation, it is, if anything, a bit too topical!