TV Review: Only Murders in the Building (Season 1)

I was recommended this show by no less than five seperate people, and that puts me in something of a dilemma as despite reviewing and recommending things for a living, I ironically don’t like watching recommendations as it puts me in the uncomfortable position, if I don’t like it of disagreeing with their opinion and that doesn’t always go down well. That being said, this show was a rare treat and I was able to go back to the people who recommended it in the first place and thoroughly gush about how much I enjoyed it.

So before we move on to the actual review, I’ll do the standard info dump, Only Murders in the Building is a mystery/comedy series, written by Steve Martin and John Hoffman, and starring Martin Short, Steve Martin and Selena Gomez. It focuses on three relative strangers, living in an affluent Upper West Side Apartment building called The Arconia who are individually obsessed with a true crime podcast. They come together when a murder happens in their own building and they decide to investigate the crime on their own, and report their findings on their own podcast ‘Only Murders in the Building’. 

Okay, now that we are done with that, let’s get started with the review. Firstly the acting, each of the lead actors makes a strong choice, and creates a character who is distinct and interesting, and while their age, outlook, interests and personality juxtapose with one other their relationships feel organic. They are quite literally linked by happenstance, just the fact they happen to live in the same building and share a passion for a true crime podcast. And yet over the course of the 10 episodes despite their differences, they work together well, and they grow to care about each other quite a lot. 

So I recently reviewed Search Party, which you can check out here, and at least the first season of which is also a mystery/comedy and I think I can make some comparisons. Firstly, both are set in New York, and both have a cast of characters who are larger than life, both deal with a real life mystery and the characters desire to solve it. The key difference is in execution, Search Party is very much a millennial story, and it’s full of cringey and awkward comedy, and while Only Murders in the Building isn’t above such comedy and it’s certainly offbeat in a similar way, it just hits a little different. 

Now to something I touched on above, each character is in their own way a little heightened, you have the obvious extravagance and theatricality of the former broadway director, Oliver Putnam but Steve Martin’s Charles-Haden Savage, a semi-retired actor, known for his one big role on a 90s police procedural Brazzos. Martin plays the character deftly, bringing in a depth and nuance to the role, managing to present someone in need of human interaction, but also terrified of it, closed off and yet willing to open his heart. Plus he’s haunted by the images of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig which represent a very personal loss he has experiences which informs the person he is when we are first introduced to him. Rounding off the core cast, we have Mabel Mora, she is the youngest of the trio, by several decades, and much like Savage is a very closed off person. Having only seen Gomez act in Wizards of Waverly Place, which is obviously a very different breed of television I was uncertain how she would fit into the role but she more than held her own against the far more established Martin and Short, and balanced out the dynamic of the show with a younger voice without seeming to pander to demographics and age brackets. She also didn’t steer too heavily into the fact that she was young, she was just another person living in the building. 

I feel like you can’t talk about a show like this without talking about the mystery, and since it’s still relatively new I will avoid spoilers, but I do want to discuss it broadly. It’s clever, and it’s unexpected without feeling like it has come out of nowhere. Each character made deductions, but not ones of the Sherlockian variety where it leaves regular people out of the loop. Instead we have three people who are reasonably perceptive, they have some grounding in solving mysteries due to their love for true crime podcasts and Savage in particular also can draw on his experience as Brazzos. It all feels natural and not outside the realm of any observant person with a vested interest in solving a crime. I also like that the natural chemistry of the three pushes the plot forward. 

I feel like the mystery is legitimately interesting, about the only sad part in the whole tale is that it becomes abundantly clear that Tim Kono (played by Julian Cihi) the murder victim is not a well liked individual. No one seemed to particularly know or like him and while by all accounts he wasn’t exactly pleasant or hospitable to the people around him it’s sad to feel that any loss of life is marked without grief or sadness. Even Mabel, who has reasons to care, takes a far more detached approach to his passing. 

I liked the show’s even tempered approach, blending comedy and drama in equal measure without overusing either. It was funny when it needed to be, but not at the cost of sacrificing the overall tension of a moment, with the possible exception being in the finale when confronted with the killer where Savage is essentially left limp and unable to move, and his desperate attempts to still come to the rescue are both funny and show his growth over the past 10 episodes from someone that is desperate not to care about people, to someone who would drag himself across the ground, inch by inch, until he found the other two. I also like to measure a good mystery by how easy it is to solve, and while I had my suspicions a couple of episodes before the final episode, I was surprised by who the killer was and not because it was convoluted or entirely implausible but because it was a well plotted mystery that only becomes clear once you possess all the facts. 

I also liked that the story wasn’t afraid of taking detours, and I’m not just talking about the red herrings and mis-steps that a good mystery should have but episode 7 for example, following in the trend of one of my favourite Bojack Horseman episodes, it removes all audible dialogue, we are presented the unique point of view of Theo Dimas (played by James Caverly) who is the son of Teddy Dimas (played by Nathan Lane) and is deaf. It was very ambitious, and could easily have been cumbersome but I felt it added a lot, and helped us to sympathise with Theo, who at that point was shaping up to be the villain of the whole piece. 

So overall, I think Only Murders in the Building was well acted, with a relatable chemistry and dynamic between the leads. An interesting and eclectic cast of supporting characters who help to flesh out the story. A balance of comedy and seriousness, that drives the core intrigue, and a genuinely interesting mystery with enough twists and turns to sustain the full season. I give it a solid 5/5 and I can’t wait for season 2. 

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