Written by Steve Martin & John Hoffman
Directed by Jamie Babbit
Release Date: August 31st, 2021
If you’ve watched the trailer for Only Murders in the Building and have seen any of Steve Martin and Martin Short’s previous films from their 80s heyday in which they either starred separately or together, then you might be forgiven for expecting something silly and zany from their new Hulu/Disney+ series in which they reunite.
Certainly the series, on the basis of these first two episodes, does bring the zaniness and the laughs, and there are plenty to be had throughout these first two episodes, but there is also a gentle air of melancholia to proceedings that gives this something of an emotional edge that is somewhat unexpected but most welcome.
That the revelatory performance at the heart of it is Selena Gomez might be an even bigger surprise, but in truth all three actors get their chance to not only steal scenes with some well timed humour, but they also show considerable depth and range to the series’ more quieter moments.
It really shouldn’t be a surprise; Short and Martin have frequently shown themselves to be actors of considerable range that can flit from well timed comedy to darkly dramatic; this being co-written and co-created by Martin means that one can possibly expect it to tip its hat into the realm of drama in the way that his 1991 masterpiece LA Story did, or 2005’s Shopgirl.
As for Short, his most recent appearance on The Morning Show saw him play a very disturbing character, one a million miles away from his comedy masterclasses in Innerspace and Three Fugitives, and while both once again play the silliness to he tilt at times, they both show so much sadness during their more quieter moments, either in scenes that can still play as comedy but which are loaded with pathos or, as Short so brilliantly demonstrates in a scene he play opposite his on-screen son, one underplayed with complex levels of emotions and sadness.
Gomez initally appears as if she is going to be playing Wednesday Adams’ long-lost, more mainstream sister, delivering the one-liners with a laid back, droll comedic style that is brillaint, but the series’ ability to actually engage with a surprisingly well put together murder mystery means that the twists that Martin and co-creator John Hoffman concoct give Gomez meatier material to chew on as well.
Like Rian Johnson’s recent Knives Out, this plays with tropes and cliches that are inherent in so many murder mysteries but also evidently knows how to actually engage with those tropes in a way to deliver a solid mystery that you can’t help but get drawn into. The first episode’s cliffhanger ending and reveal of some pertinent information that opens the floodgates to new layers of storytelling indicates that Martin and Hoffman are not only wanting to lampoon the genre and the way in which audiences consume it, but also do something that is well told on its own.
That it has Jamie Babbitt behind the camera directing it and bringing it to life is also a great contributing factor. The But I’m a Cheerleader director has directed great episodes of many classics series and brings a preppy, witty style to this in the way she did to so many of the great episodes of Gilmore Girls and Russian Doll she helped bring to the screen.
In an era filled to the brim with true crime podcasts and documentaries, Only Murders in the Building really goes to town in exploring how audiences become dependent on the darkest of real life stories in a manner that may not be the healthiest, especially given that the stories are real and involve real people. Its gentle spoofing of things like Serial (along with a pleasing cameo from an iconic modern day comedy figure) are genuinely funny and when the series devotes itself to our intrepid trio trying to launch their own podcast, the laughs are very much present, pointing out some of the absurdities that come in trying to concoct purple prose and having it delivered with a straight face when it comes to documenting the most horrifying of crimes.
Short and Martin will no doubt be the big draw for many, but on the basis of these first two episodes, it’s Gomez who might prove to be the series’ revelatory heart. She brings an enjoyable disdain to her performance, but she grasps the complexities of her character and the material fully and before you know it, what you thought might just be a silly series involving two comedy legends and a star of various Disney Channel productions, has wormed their way into your heart and you just know that this might prove to be appointment viewing for the next couple of weeks.
Also, is it just me, or does anyone else really want to binge watch Brazzos after this?