With season one having drawn to a close and season two in the works, it’s safe to say that, as Hulu’s top-viewed comedy TV series ever, Only Murders In The Building has tapped into the cultural zeitgeist in a way that works. Performances from minor players, up-and-coming stars, and comedy greats interweave to create a tapestry that is both heartfelt and funny, making this the rare show about murder that manages to also be about lonely people, enduring loss, and found family.
The central conceit features a small group of true crime aficionados that become friends, including former TV actor Charles Haden Savage (Steve Martin), struggling Broadway director Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), and apartment renovator Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez). Once relative strangers, these neighbors team up to solve the murder of an especially vulnerable resident of their shared apartment building in NYC, the Arconia.
The series works to create a parody of true crime fandom overall. Yet, one of the most important things it does is to gently urge both true crime and parodies thereof to create better, more humanistic portrayals of the human lives behind the headlines.
True crime is not an easy genre, and often comes under criticism for a number of things, perhaps none so much as for glorifying murderers by shining the spotlight on them while the stories of the victims and their families go unheard. Though there has been a greater push against this status quo in recent years and a lean into investigating cold cases and identifying the loss that often surrounds a murder case, it remains an ongoing criticism of the genre.
Only Murders takes time to address this in subtle ways without necessarily absolving itself or the genre for its missteps. In an interview with Deadline, co-creator Jonathan Hoffman noted that, “I think it’s important that, with these stories, also for a comedy, to remind us that we’re talking about one life and how that life touched a lot of lives, and we show it in a big way and a lot of different ways,” adding that, “Nothing, hopefully, is painted in just one color around the victims on our show.”
This level of care shows through, and is a major part of what makes the series work. Though the show’s most defining trait is the way it builds a lush world within the apartment complex where our protagonists and antagonists alike reside, even our heroes become carried away in temporary rushes of excitement that can lead them to forget that they’re dealing with a tragedy.
At a certain point, Mabel snaps at Savage and Putnam that they’re discussing an actual person, which serves the role of foreshadowing the reveal of her friendship with murder victim Tim Kono (Julian Cihi), but likewise puts a halt on the cast or the audience getting so carried away in zany hijinks that they forget the severity of the situation.
Tim Kono was lonely. When he is given the chance to speak in the final episode, he tells us as much, explaining briefly how he fell into a tumultuous relationship with his murderer, Jan (Amy Ryan). Early in the series, a meeting among the Arconia’s tenants tells us that he was universally reviled, but by the end of the series, we see that he’s struggled with the way he hurt his friend Oscar (Aaron Dominguez) by failing to speak up when he witnessed Oscar’s then-girlfriend Zoe (Olivia Reis) fall to her death. When he sees Mabel at the Arconia several years down the line, he angrily tells her to pretend she doesn’t know him. He hurts people to keep them at a distance, particularly after losing his only friends the night that Zoe died and Oscar went to jail for it. Despite his many missteps, we sympathize with him.
The series moves at a fast pace, but it makes room for moments that tell us who these characters are. When the gang is loading into the elevator that once determined Oscar’s eventual ten-year stint in prison, he pauses, and notes that he’s going to take another route, leaving the group to meet up with them later. The pain that Oscar has gone through is often a footnote in the series, which is why moments like that make all the difference.
Comparatively, Zoe is never particularly fleshed-out, but she comes across as a hurt, complicated person more than a villain, and her friendship with Mabel remains sincere. When Oscar tells Mabel that he can’t go back into the past with her, she tells him in no uncertain terms that this is about their future more than it’s about dredging up old memories, and that gives a greater insight into her own personal demons.
Tina Fey’s turn as Cinda Canning shows us a slightly more callous true crime podcaster. Though our crew is obsessed with her show, she employs various lookalikes in a nod to her overall self-obsession and laughs at their attempts to start a podcast. Taking all of the glory and offering nothing to the victims of the crimes she investigates, this character is wildly entertaining, but exemplifies many of the pitfalls of both true crime and comedy genres. Meanwhile, the in-story fans of Only Murders are portrayed as awkward and in need of attaching to something, or anything, which further fleshes out the complex role that true crime plays in people’s lives.
This is a series that has been praised for bringing a sense of genuine emotional impact to what would otherwise be a fairly loose murder mystery, and a big part of that falls on the actors. Regardless of where each performer is at in their career, they are all compelling to watch, and that’s unquestionably the glue that holds the show together. The humor is biting and modern, and the scripts play to the strengths of each actor. Still, even with this incredible cast, it’s the emotional underpinnings of the series that kept viewers coming back for more, and the commentary on the strengths and weaknesses of the true crime genre is a major part of that.