Only Murders in the Building. Available Tuesday, August 31, on Hulu.
When I was a little kid, we lived on a U.S. Army base in Germany, right in the middle of the Fulda Gap, the place where Soviet armor was expected to come roaring into the West when World War III broke out. My dad, an Army counterintelligence officer, spent his days (and, more often, his nights) breaking into Eastern Bloc diplomatic posts, cracking the safes and photographing their contents. And I spent mine listening to the Armed Forces Radio Network, the only English-language entertainment around in those days.
Except for an afternoon show called Bavarian Bandstand featuring American rock 'n' roll records, the radio mostly ran scripted dramas and comedies. There were radio versions of American TV shows (Gunsmoke), made-for-radio comedies (Fibber McGee and Molly), soap operas (I can't remember the name, but my mom loved one in which the bad guy seemed to be corn whiskey), and—late at night when kids weren't supposed to be awake—crime melodramas.
For three years, these shows were the daily highlight of my life. Then we went home, got a TV and were once again able to embrace American fine art. The radio was where you went to hear Elvis Presley and—just to remind us that the Fulda Gap was a happenin' place—the occasional CONELRAD alert.
Sixty years later, I'm amazed to report that the radio culture of my pre-school years has gloriously resurfaced in digital form. No, Molly isn't harping at Fibber again. But cell phones bristle with so many true-crime podcasts that it won't be long before we're listening to breathless accounts of steamy shoplifting and mask-evasion cases. Yes, yes, television has its own glut of true-crime shows, but they generally lack all those pretentiously sonorous baritones and perfect-diction sopranos that sprout among the podcasts like, well, public-radio pod people.
Happily, Hulu's Only Murders in the Building is here to lampoon not just the podcasts but the NPR-listening, kale-munching, Sting-worshiping swine who listen to them. I verily cackled with glee when I heard one character tell another that a particular podcast was "PBS-y, like a Ken Burns documentary on boredom."
The pair involved in that exchange are played by long-time comic partners Steve Martin and Martin Short. Here they play Charles (Short), a has-been Broadway director whose main distinction was that he was the first to use an actual cadaver on stage, and Oliver (Martin), once the star of an ancient and abysmal TV cop show. Long-time residents of a creepy but still posh old apartment building seemingly modeled after The Dakota, they weren't particularly friendly until bonding over, yes, a true-crime podcast.
When, in the middle of an episode, they're forced out of the building by a jangling fire alarm, the two men continue listening in a bar across the street. They're soon joined by another obsessive listener, a 20-something slacker named Mabel (Selena Gomez, Wizards of Waverly Place) who's theoretically decorating her aunt's vacant apartment but mostly loafs around indulging kink well beyond her years. "Sometimes when I can't sleep," she muses, "I imagine brutally murdering some dude."
That fire-alarm break provides them with more than a chance to swap theories about the crime featured on their podcast. When they return home, they learn another tenant has shot himself while everybody was out of the building. A look at his apartment, empty except for one mountain of unpaid bills and another of overused sex toys, unaccountably convinces them this is no suicide. The police, not surprisingly, aren't receptive. "Goddammit, what fuckin' podcast are you all hooked on?" one cop demands.
Within minutes, Charles, Oliver, and Mabel are sifting through garbage in the basement, breaking into their neighbors' apartments to steal mail, and trying out portentous lines for their own murder podcast. What follows is a mélange of drawing-room red herrings that would have made Agatha Christie positively orgasmic, including poisoned cats, parasitic mistletoe, and the Armenian genocide. One lead even implicates Sting, a building resident, though young Mabel's confused by that one: "Sting? The guy from U-2?"
That's one of a number of cross-generation befuddlement jokes in Only Murders. Martin and Short, both in their 70s, wear their ages well and are as reliably funny as ever. (More reliably, if you were unlucky enough to see Three Amigos.) The surprise is Gomez, who tosses off all that Tiger Beat baggage—Justin Bieber's girlfriend, Taylor Swift's BFF, singing to cartoons—to imbue her character with wit and a certain amount of chilly darkness. "Old white guys are only afraid of colon cancer and societal change," she sneers at Charles and Oliver, offering no clue that she, too, has a checkered past.
Gomez gets a lot of good dialogue and nails it every time. Even so, the best lines in the Only Murders scripts—mostly written by Martin and John Hoffman of Grace and Frankie—are the faux-portentous crap of the podcasts. "We're all born alone unless you're a twin or something," declares one theatrically world-weary narrator. "But twins creep me the fuck out. And don't even get me started on triplets or quadruple-whatever the fuck they're called." Adds another: "For a long time, I felt ashamed that to have a deaf son. It ended my marriage, actually—that, you know, and all the whores." Words to live by.