Two of the All Time Greats Show Why They Still Are
A Little Later Than Usual: Only Murders in the Building
It has always bothered me that I have never really had an occasion in this column to explain how much I truly love Steve Martin. Ever since I saw his remake of Father of the Bride at twelve, I knew what a genius he was. I’ve seen some of the most remarkable and slyest comedies he’s made — from Roxanne and L.A. Story to Bowfinger and It’s Complicated he’s always a joy to watch. In the 21st Century he has been the most consistently funny Oscar host I’ve ever seen, never being pretentious always sly, genuinely fun. Watching reruns of host SNL going back to the 1980s I’ve always been astonished at just how good he is. It’s a tragedy he was never even nominated for an Oscar in competition and is now at the point where he’s getting lifetime achievement awards — the Kennedy Centers have honored him twice.
I’ve actually had more of a chance to observe Martin Short’s work over the last thirty years and if anything, he’s more versatile than Martin at times. I don’t think his film work is as brilliant as Martin’s (I never understood Clifford for one) but his television work has always been fascinated. I remember watching the single season he starred on SNL in reruns and was astonished at his level of awkward humor before we had a term for it. I was fascinated by his work as Nathan Thurm, the constantly beleaguered attorney and no one will his forget his bit with Harry Shearer as a ‘male synchronized swimming team”. He also had great dramatic skills that he rarely tapped. I’ve always loved Damages and one of the great pleasures of Season 3 was his extraordinary work as Leonard Winstone, the attorney to a wealthy family, who kept their secrets from the world while keeping the biggest of all from them. I won’t say he was robbed of an Emmy for Best Supporting Actor in 2010 (it was a strong field and Aaron Paul earned it) but almost everyone else in the category got another chance and to date he hasn’t.
I have delighted in the ‘bromance’ that these two geniuses have had for more than thirty five years and have always delighted in their work solo or together. When the two of them united in starring in Only Murders in the Building which debuted in Hulu this September and the raves began to come almost immediately I knew it would only be a matter of time before I watched it. All I needed was an ‘excuse’. This past weeks nominations of the series, Short and Martin from both the Broadcast Critics and the Golden Globes gave me my reason. And it’s everything they say it is — and more.
The story circles around three residents of an apartment complex in New York — the Arconian. Martin plays Charles, an actor best known for playing a TV detective named Bronzos in the early 1990s. (His catchphrase: “This sends the investigation in a whole new direction.” Short plays Christopher, a flamboyant theater director who says he’s ‘between projects’ and clearly hasn’t worked in a very long time. Selena Gomez is Mabel, a twenty-something who doesn’t seem to have a job at all. The three of them are typical New Yorkers — when they come into contact they never engage. They all, however, share a secret passion — they all love the same true crime podcast.
One night in the middle of the latest episode, there’s an alarm. All of them end up at a table in a restaurant and their mutual obsession is revealed. They start talking animatedly until things get personal. Then they go back to the hotel and find that one of their neighbors — Tim Kono — is dead of an apparent suicide. Their mutual obsession — and let’s face it, New York nosiness — gets them involved, especially when they realize that they saw him in the elevator an hour before he died. They decide to investigate the murder more because of the desire to create their own true crime podcast (they were there at the beginning) than to actually solve the crime. At least, that’s what two of them are doing it for.
Because this is as much a murder mystery as it is a satire of them, Martin (who co-wrote the pilot) has given secrets to all three characters. Charles is an actor who hasn’t had steady work in more than twenty years. He is elitist and treats most people — especially Christopher — with disdain. There’s a moment that seems very telling about his social life when he tells Mabel why he’s alone and that it has to do with how horrible his father was. It seems genuine — except in the next episode Mabel is watching Bronzos on YouTube and sees Bronzos reciting that exact monologue. When she calls him on it in the second episode Charles tells her it’s the truth and it was the only bit of his character the writers would allow for the show. Is he telling the truth? There’s a bit near the end of the pilot where one of his neighbors mentions a woman named Lucy that used to live there and the usually blunt Charles is cagey about what happened to her.
Christopher’s secrets are a bit more depressing. In a meeting with his son, he tries very bluntly to ask for a loan and we know it’s not the first time. He’s eight months behind on his apartment fees and is about to lose his home and given the way he raids a memorial dinner for the victim, its clear this may be the biggest meal he’s had in years. He’s apparently friendlier and more open than Charles, but he cares even less about what happened to Tim that he does — he wants to podcast to happen solely for the process of making money. You also get the feeling the reason he hasn’t worked in awhile is because he’s not very good at his job, considering how much he overmanage Charles narration and how badly he writes the script.
The one with the most secrets is Mabel. She knew the victim — they were childhood friends. She says she used to play ‘The Hardy Boys’ when she was growing up to Charles, but she conveniently omits that Tim was part of that group and that their adventures weren’t just childhood pranks. And she actually may know why Tim died — its part of the reason she moved into the building in the first place. She’s also aware that it may get her killed too.
Only Murders is the rare fusion that works well both as a comedy and as a mystery. When the crime-solvers go to the memorial for Tim to try and earn sympathy for him — which is perfunctory and hilarious simultaneously — not only can no one muster fake sympathy for him, everyone is far more upset at the death of a neighbor’s cat. That same death of the cat seems like a key factor in Tim’s murder. And Tim clearly was keeping secrets — when Mabel raids his apartment, she finds a collection of Hardy Boys novels which at first she just thinks are sentimental tie to the past. In fact, all of them are secret containers of jewelry and letters that indicate Tim did have a secret life and someone could have wanted him dead for nefarious reasons. The question is: will Mabel tell her fellow podcasters and what will happen? If you’ve seen the teaser that opens the series you know bad things are in store.
This is one of those series that works well on every possible level — as satire and the genre its satirizing, brilliant comic performances by the three leads that have a darker and sadder edge and a real look at how messy New York truly is. I’m overjoyed that Only Murders in the Building has been renewed for a second season already and I hope that, as is the case for all three actors (including Gomez who until this show I had no use for and no truly real grasp of her talent) that it lasts a long time. I don’t listen to podcasts and I have no use for true crime. But I would gladly follow these three miscreants as they ‘send their investigations into a whole new direction.”
My score: 4.75 stars.