There’s a certain level of emotional detachment you have to adopt in order to be a dedicated true-crime fan. Memorizing the gruesome crimes of America’s most prolific serial killers often comes at the expense of discounting their victims. As amateur investigations into cases play out online, real people can get hurt in the process. Still, fans of the genre keep coming back for more, devouring podcasts, documentaries, and series after series that make them feel like gumshoes cracking the cases.
That obsession lies at the heart of Only Murders in the Building, out August 31 on Hulu. Cocreated by Waco-born Steve Martin, the ten-episode series follows Charles (Martin), a washed up actor known for his role as a fictional TV detective, Mabel (Selena Gomez), a sarcastic twenty-something with a mysterious past, and Oliver (Martin Short), a financially strapped director in need of his next big hit. The three become amigos over their love of an investigative podcast. When they’re forced to evacuate their luxury Upper West Side apartment building during a fire drill, the unlikely trio stumbles upon a suspicious suicide they’re convinced is a murder. They’re not only determined to unravel the death of their neighbor, Tim Kono (Julian Cihi), they also decide to follow in the footsteps of their idol Cinda Canning (a Sarah Koenig type expertly and hilariously voiced by Tina Fey) by creating an investigative podcast of their own.
Caught somewhere between the movie Clue and the crime mockumentary American Vandal, the Hulu series both parodies and subverts the tropes of the genre while still serving up a captivating mystery. In making the central characters of the show podcast hosts, Only Murders becomes a meta send-up of the true-crime landscape we live in. When the group first bonds over Canning’s podcast, All Is Not Okay in Oklahoma, Charles quickly glosses over the actual missing woman at the center of the case (“student council president, she had a smile that would light up a room, blah, blah, blah . . . ”) to talk theories and swap suspects with the rest of the group.
Later, once they launch their show, Oliver, ever the director, is quick to tell the others the key to every bingeable murder podcast: the victim must be sympathetic, sexy, or both. And when the group eventually wins over a detective with their theories, she remarks, “Can you believe this is how crimes are solved now?”
This push and pull between ethics and entertainment is a recurring theme throughout the series, and in some ways, it’s more unnerving than the suspected murder driving the plot forward. When it’s revealed that a member of the trio might know more about the case than they’re letting on, Oliver’s first instinct is to pull out his mic and mine the betrayal for a twist in their next episode. He’s in dire financial straits, so he needs the podcast to be a hit. He’s also so caught up in the mystery that he doesn’t even have time to be hurt. It’s a funny moment and one of many scenes that points at a darker truth: we live in a world where real-life tragedy is broken up by Squarespace ads and podcasters turned celebrities use trauma to collect Peabody Awards or fuel multimillion-dollar acquisition deals.
The easy chemistry between longtime friends and frequent collaborators Martin and Short is no surprise, but Gomez fits in well, providing a snarky, youthful energy. It’s been more than eight years since the Grand Prairie–born singer and actress (who also serves as an executive producer for the show) has tackled a TV role, so it’s fun to see her display the same sharp wit and dry humor that first made her a star as Alex Russo in Wizards of Waverly Place. And while Oliver and Charles have a tendency to get carried away by the podcast, Mabel proves to be a complicated, if grounding, moral center, making a point to emphasize Kono’s humanity as the episodes go on.
As each episode dips into a new facet of the case, there’s an undercurrent of tenderness among the protagonists that propels the series. Yes, this might be a story centered around a gruesome death, but it’s also about the past tragedies that bring these characters together. Charles’s last heartbreak, the sudden loss in Mabel’s past, and the strained relationship between Oliver and his son once served to isolate them, but as their involvement in the case begins to put them in danger, they learn to trust one another.
The show also has fun playing with viewers’ expectations, sometimes dipping into surreal sequences that reveal more about each character’s hidden trauma. At times, bizarrely, Looney Tunes characters appear in Charles’s apartment, only visible to him; we later learn that they’re actually a painful reminder of something from his past. In another sequence, we watch Oliver narrow down his list of suspects by imagining they’re lined up at a Broadway casting call, auditioning for the role of “murderer.”
And just as the group is starting to unravel the mystery, a threatening note and the poisoning of Oliver’s dog lead them to suspect their neighbor, Sting (yes, that Sting), of having had a hand in the crime. It’s an absurd theory that doesn’t last long, but watching the group clumsily interrogate the ex-Police man, and hearing him briefly break into a song inspired by Kono’s death, is one of several similar moments that makes the show a joy to watch.
Between all of these red herrings, the show manages to keep its viewers guessing, offering up more than one unexpected twist and a couple of viable suspects that weren’t too easy to spot. In an entertainment landscape overrun by macabre mysteries and self-serious crime thrillers, Only Murders ditches the heavy tone and dark turns of prestige TV, and is all the better for it. It ultimately pokes fun at the sort of people Gomez, Martin, and Short portray, who are probably the viewers most likely to tune in.