At last, the television program we’ve all been waiting for our whole lives: the one in which Teen Choice Award winner Selena Gomez exchanges dialogue with Tony Award winner Martin Short and honorary Oscar winner Steve Martin. It’s Hulu’s latest, Only Murders in the Building, and it opens in the same way every show and movie opens now: in the very-near future! Mind-blowing, right? Who would have thought? Men with guns and baseball caps run through the hallways of a decadent prewar Upper West Side apartment building. Meanwhile, Steve Martin and Martin Short run through a different part of the prewar Upper West Side apartment building while Short screams, “Oh my God, oh my God,” like a true-crime queen. When they enter the apartment unit, Selena Gomez is on the floor hovering over a body. Her lush white turtleneck is covered in blood. She’s wearing shiny hoop earrings. “It’s not what you think,” she says. (Unfortunately for me, she does not mention where she purchased the turtleneck.)
The story then flashes to two months before Selena Gomez seemingly becomes a murderer, and introduces our little cast of misfits with shots of them walking in New York City, which is a great way to instantly understand anyone’s personality. Charles (Steve Martin) wears a little hat (I will mention this little hat often, you’ve been warned) and talks to tourists long enough to get roped into taking a picture of them. Oliver (Martin Short) wears a royal-blue coat with a purple scarf and screams at cars. Mabel (Selena Gomez) walks confidently in the middle of the sidewalk in a furry yellow coat, as if the city is exclusively hers. (Not that anyone asked, but when walking in New York City, I am a mix of Oliver and Mabel.)
The premiere of Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building from co-creators Martin and John Hoffman explores secrets, loneliness, and the true-crime craze of the 2010s, all set in an iconic New York City apartment building — the Arconia, meant as a stand-in for the Ansonia — that’s filled with characters straight out of Fran Lebowitz’s brain. The premiere answers every question I had leading up to its release: Will an eccentric group of strangers try to solve a crime, assuming they are experts because they listen to a murder podcast? Will Martin Short make a reference to the hit musical Annie? Will Steve Martin wear a little hat? Does Selena Gomez have a secret bigger than her hair? (An emphatic “yes” to each.)
Before the unlikely trio becomes an amateur mystery-solving gang that rivals Scooby Doo’s, the characters introduce themselves via quirky expositional voice-overs paired shots of them (quirkily) walking in New York City.
First we have Charles, an actor who starred in a popular TV crime series back in the day (which in these days means the ’90s) called Brazzos. Charles clings to the fame Brazzos gave him. He’s eager to please, and has been desperately seeking the next big thing for decades. Charles is also meticulously organized: He organizes his peppers in perfect rows inside his fridge (he’d be horrified to see that I just shove them in a drawer), and the way he organizes his true-crime theories would be satisfying to anyone who loves spreadsheets and organization stuff (can you tell I’m not one of these people?). Charles also loves eggs — he cooks them several times in this 33-minute episode. But like every character in Only Murders in the Building, he also has a secret: He once lived in the Arconia with a former live-in partner, Lucy (she loved omelettes), but he lies by omission to Mabel when he says he’s lived alone in the Arconia for 28 years. But that’s all in the past. Now, Charles doesn’t have any job leads or anyone in his life. Just his little hat, eggs, meticulously placed peppers, and a murder podcast to listen to in his Manhattan apartment.
Next is the tough, bold, and opinionated Mabel, who knows sexual-assault statistics off the top of her head. Beneath her tough persona, she’s incredibly anxious, which explains her obsession with memorizing said statistics, binging Dateline, and her unique way of falling asleep — she imagines brutally murdering a man who appears in one of her recurring dreams, and she’s “out like a light.” It appears that Mabel doesn’t have much going on in her life. She doesn’t seem to have a job, and she’s alone for the first time in her life. She’s living in her aunt’s Arconia apartment with the promise that she will renovate it, but that’s not going well or going at all. So she finds solace in obsessing over true crime and solving mysteries. But, as it’s revealed at the very end of the episode, Mabel is keeping a secret that could end the show within ten minutes if she shared it: She knew the man who was murdered in the building.
Last is Oliver, who gleefully walks upper Manhattan, wearing a delicious royal-blue wool coat and silk purple scarf. He’s spaced out as he quotes the hit musical Annie (“NYC. What is it about you?”) before a car almost hits him, and he angrily fires back, “Really? Do you not see this coat?” The episode focuses on Oliver the most, who is the only character who bravely gives us a break from the city when he visits his son in New Jersey under the guise of visiting his grandkids ( he knows they aren’t home) to actually ask for money. This is clearly not the first, second, or third time Oliver has asked his son for money, but it is the last, as Oliver’s son refuses and demands he sell the apartment at the Arconia. “But it’s all I have,” Oliver says. Oliver is a the quintessential New Yorker: Even though all of the Broadway shows Oliver has in the works are not actually in the works, at least he has a murder podcast to listen to in his enviable apartment in New York City.
When an alarm goes off in the Arconia, everyone evacuates and waits in the same restaurant. Charles and Oliver are forced to sit together due to the lack of tables, and are shortly joined by Mabel, whom they recognize from the elevator ride earlier. This is when they all discover that while they have absolutely nothing else in common, they all listen to the hit true-crime podcast All Is Not Okay in Oklahoma. Because of their devoted listening, they’ve convinced themselves that they’re better than professional detectives at solving murders.
Speaking of murders, that brings us to the last major character: Tim Konos. Tim was also a resident of the building (he was also in the elevator when Charles, Oliver, and Mable first met earlier in the episode), until he was found dead while the building was evacuated. The detectives quickly declare it a suicide, but the gang does not agree. Based on their experience (listening to a murder podcast), they deduce that he couldn’t have killed himself because he was expecting an important package. Why would he kill himself one hour later? For the rest of the episode, they attempt to solve the mystery and (I think) break laws in the process. They steal the package Tim was anxious to receive, and it turns out to be an engagement ring. As they snoop around for more evidence, they decide to make this whole thing into a podcast called Only Murders in the Building. Hey, that’s the name of the show!
Only Murders in the Building introduces us to these charming, lonely New Yorkers who think they are better off alone and rationalize that, despite being miserable, they’re actually happy because they live in New York City. They might think they can bounce back from their career, financial, and personal troubles, but for now, the only things Charles, Mabel, and Oliver have going for them is their murder podcast and their obsession with listening to murder podcasts. There’s something endearing about Steve Martin making a show that dissects the obsession with true crime years after its peak with Serial, Making a Murderer, and The Jinx. The true-crime craze has been dissected already, most notably with Netflix’s excellent American Vandal. But this is a little more than that: a quaint exploration of people who become obsessed with things that are out of their control.
• Where did Mabel get the burnt-orange jumpsuit?
• If you had to put Only Murders in the Building on a white-people-in–New York City scale from Fran Lebowitz to HBO’s Girls, it would clock in at “Mad Men meets Search Party.” Numerically, that is a gentle seven on a scale of one to ten. If not for the presence of Selena Gomez, it would be a 65.