Is it possible for murder to make you feel all warm and fuzzy inside?
Likely only if you’re Dexter, but for the rest of us who are not so sociopathically-inclined, watching people solve a murder comes pretty close, especially if it wrapped in the cleverly charming packaging of Only Murders in the Building, a whodunnit series which comes with a healthy heartening dose of humanity to go with its sleuthing.
Created by John Hoffman and actor-comedian-musician Steve Martin, who also stars as one of the lead characters Charles Haden-Savage a semi-retired actor whose great claim to came is an early ’90s detective series Brazzos, which ran for nine seasons and which has cast a long light or shadow, depending on the day, on his life ever since, Only Murders in the Building is a rare delight that gives you much more than the satisfaction of seeing a perpetrator/s brought to justice.
In fact, while the murder-mystery that engulfs the rarefied confines of the Arconia building on new York’s Upper West Side, spawning a true crime podcast which drives the show’s narrative, is the main game in town when it comes to the plot, what really captures your heart is the time Only Murders in the Building takes in helping us get to know the characters of this heart of this captivating story.
Joining Charles, who long ago shut himself from life, love and any kind or risk or adventure, are previous strangers, financially struggling, past-his-glory-days director Oliver Putnam (Martin Short in gloriously and perfectly overstated form) and Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez), who is staying in her rich aunt’s apartment in 12E while she applies finishing designer touches to a renovation.
Like all big dwellers, these three live hermetically sealed-off lives, surrounded by people but not engaging with them until a chance encounter during a fire alarm, when they all wait it out at a nearby ritzy diner, leads them to discover that they all share a passionate, near-obsessive love for a true crime podcast, All is Not Well in Oklahoma, presented by the queen of the genre, Cinda Canning (Tina Fey in deliciously self-skewering form).
They are content to share various theories and insights, each of them amateur detectives with the gift of mystery-solving that seasoned law enforcement officials lack – Only Murders in the Building has affectionate fun with true crime devotees celebrating their passion while arching an eyebrow at their more obsessive tendencies – but have no intention of taking their temporary bonding any further.
The idea that they might become friends is the furthest thing from their mind but that is precisely what happens when a murder takes place in their building while the fire alarm has everyone – well, almost everyone obviously – otherwise occupied and they set out to find out killed suited resident Tim Kono (Julian Cihi).
It seems like a simple enough idea with true crime podcasts laying out the solving of a murder like the clues are scattered across the ground just waiting to be collected but as our fearsome, and at times hilarious threesome soon discover, solving a crime is way harder than it looks.
Just ask NYPD’s long-suffering NYPD Detective Williams (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) who hates true crime podcasts with a passion and is disinclined to help our intrepid Poirot-wannabes when they come a-callin’, eager to find the villain of the piece and record it all for posterity into the bargain.
In common with many whodunnits, especially those happily occupying the cosy mystery niche where the dangers are visceral only and the payoff substantial from a reassuring distance, Only Murders in the Building doles out a steady diet of clues, red herrings, stunning reveals and Hardy Boys-esque adventuring – apropos since Mabel since was in a crime-solving group in her teens modelled after the amateur brother detectives – all of which serve to advance the case in pleasingly substantial degrees.
Naturally the tangled web woven by those who seek to deceive is everywhere, ensnaring all kinds of people, including our tenacious threesome who dig through garbage, break-and-enter into woefully unsecured apartments and travel all across New York and between floors to bring justice to Kono and some degree of podcast fame to themselves.
While all that Agatha Christie-ing with a digital enhanced 21st century twist is a lot of fun, what really gives Only Murders in the Building a beguiling likeability, apart from its light and fetching tone much of the time, is the way it treats its main characters with so much sensitivity and raw humanity.
Each of them are islands unto themselves when the fateful fire alarm sounds, but as they do their Midsomer Murders best to find justice in a city not exactly known for it, they become closer and closer, exposing wounds long concealed for a variety of reasons, all best left to the viewing which is as touching as it is funny – Sting’s cameo as a heightened version of himself is comedic gold, especially when he and Short are sharing a scene – and healing each other in ways they didn’t know they needed.
It’s a rich and rewarding tale of connectedness found in circumstances where their rendering sits at the heart of the story, and it’s so emphatically well done that you very quickly fall in love with all three leads and even many of the broadly but expertly realised supporting characters such as Detective Williams, amusingly cantankerous coop head Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell), cat owner and building resident Howard Morris ((Michael Cyril Creighton) and father and son deli owners with a few big secrets maybe possibly, Teddy and Theo Dimas (Nathan Lane and James Caverly respectively), the latter of whom is deaf, and whose character frames a masterfully-done episode (#7 of 10, “The Boy from 6B”) which is delivered only with subtitles, incidental music and visual gestures.
This episode is a brilliant example of the care taken with each and every episode of Only Murders in the Building which adroitly balances hilarity and heart, penetrating insight and surreal silliness in such a way that it remains an intoxicatingly loveable mix of the sober and the ridiculous all the way through.
Armed with a playfully affecting score by composer Siddhartha Khosla, including a brief but pitch-perfect opening theme which comes complete with adorably incisive animation, Only Murders in the Building is happiness-inducing proof that while murder may not a warm-and-fuzzy undertaking, solving them can be, especially when it brings you friends and purposes you didn’t know you needed and remakes your life in such a way that you’ll never quite be the same again.
As you might expect, the promotion for the show was a lot of fun …