Okay, what do we have here? A lot, for one, and most of it good. We’ve got Steve Martin and Martin Short teaming up again, for what feels like the 30th time, in a project that lets them play directly to their strengths. That’s never bad. We’ve got Selena Gomez in the crew, working with and alongside the two comedy icons, serving the dual purpose of creating a generational divide that can be mined for laughs and making me ask myself if Three Amigos would have been a better movie if Selena Gomez had a time machine and replaced Chevy Chase. I haven’t solved that last one yet, mostly because now my brain is cranking away on how funny it would be if Selena Gomez had a time machine that she used exclusively to steal Chevy Chase’s career out from under him. Selena Gomez in Caddyshack. Selena Gomez in Fletch. It’s all a fun little brain exercise that we do not have time for right now (STOP THINKING ABOUT SELENA GOMEZ IN CHRISTMAS VACATION), because right now we need to talk about the new Hulu series Only Murders in the Building, which, through its first chunk of episodes, is shaping up to be an absolute blast.
Some plot-related business, without giving too much away. All three of them live in the same aging fancy apartment building in Manhattan, and all three of them are obsessive fans of true-crime podcasts, especially one specific fictional program that is dropping weekly episodes as this show begins. The fire alarm goes off in their building one night, and when they all return, blammo, there’s a dead body in the building, an alleged suicide that the three of them refuse to accept as such for a handful of reasons, the primary one at first being “because podcasts.” Guess if they decide to start their own investigation. Guess if they decide to podcast about it themselves. I suspect you’ve landed on the correct answers here.
And buddy, it is a hoot, this haphazard homicide investigation these three goofs engage in. Remember how I said way back in the first paragraph that everyone is playing to their strengths? Well, check this out. Martin Short plays a theatrical director named Oliver and, yes, this description cuts both ways as he is a director of theatrical productions and a director with a wildly theatrical personality. There are so many scarves involved here. Martin Short rarely gives you anything less than the Full Martin Short, but he is somehow exceeding even that so far. Look at a king work.
Steve Martin, too. Steve Martin has been around for so long doing so many things — stand-up, movies, banjo-playing — that it can be a little too easy to take him for granted at this point. Please do not do that. Please do not ever do that. Steve Martin has been doing all that for as long as he has because he’s insanely good at all of it, and he dials up another winner here. He plays an actor named Charles who starred in a long-running television cop show called Brazzos as, you guessed it, a cop named Brazzos. This allows him to dig deep into the old Steve Martin back of tricks. He plays the character as pretentious and frustrated and sad, but almost always for laughs. He is very good, especially when we start getting to the podcast business. Look at this king work, too.
Which brings us to Selena Gomez. Selena Gomez is so good in Only Murders in the Building. This should not be a huge surprise, probably, because Selena Gomez has been doing this quite literally for almost her entire life. But still. Watching her out there going toe-to-toe with living legends like Short and Martin who have a decades-long history of working together… it’s really something. Her character is named Mabel and has secrets. She has a lot of secrets, ones that are being left out morsel-by-morsel as the show leads us down its increasingly twisty path. It’s good. She’s good. And she swears a lot, which is enjoyable for me for reasons I have not fully put my finger on yet.
What it all leads to is a fun little satire of the entire true-crime industrial complex, told within a true-crime story. There are nods galore to the genre, quite literally starting with the theme song and score, which open with these bouncy little tinkling keyboards that sound kind of a lot like the music from the first go-round of Serial. There are celebrity cameos — so many celebrity cameos — littered throughout, with everyone from Tina Fey to freaking Sting popping up in the first three episodes. Where do you even go from a Sting cameo in your first three episodes? I’m legitimately asking. Beyoncé? Obama? The ghost of Prince?
It’s a fair question, and one I look forward to investigating as the season goes on. Or at least once I stop thinking about the thing where Prince once appeared as himself in an episode of New Girl, which I suspect will happen just in time for this show to drop its fourth episode next Tuesday. That’s another cool thing that’s happening here. After dropping the first three episodes this week, the show is switching to a weekly format the rest of the way through. I like that more shows are doing that again, in part because it leads to more discussion and buzz between episodes and in part because it allows me to do things like yell at you to get caught up in time for us to all talk about the next episode. Watch this show. Come hang out. We’ll have fun.
I don’t know where any of this is headed, exactly. Shows like this that introduce a twisty plot early on can ride it through to success or fizzle out halfway through by tying themselves into knots. What I do know, though, is that this sucker is off to a blast of a start. It toes that line between parody and self-seriousness as well as any show I’ve seen this year. It’s playful and heartfelt and dark and light and a few dozen other things all at once. There are a slew of suspects and incompetent amateur investigators and cats and flashbacks. There is also, to my great pleasure, a tough-talking detective who shows up early on and grumbles lines like this one.
It’s a good show. And a manageable one to keep up with, what with the aforementioned weekly release. And it makes for a good family viewing, as long as you have the kind of family where Selena Gomez saying the eff word a lot is kosher. It’s fun to watch and fun to discuss and really just a bunch of fun, in general. You could do a heck of a lot worse with 30 minutes or so a week. And you might never look at Sting the same way after seeing him as a dog-hating version of himself. I did not expect to type that last sentence in a television review, ever, but here we all are. The world is full of surprises.