In Hulu’s Only Murders within the Building, two veteran comedians bring back the table the clearly defined personae that they’ve firmly entrenched within the public mind: Martin often plays men who are self-impressed, even pompous, and a touch uptight, while Martin Short plays smarmy show-business phonies turned up to 11.
At first, the actors slot easily, even predictably, into their respective roles: Martin is Charles, a washed-up actor living off the royalties from his old cop show, and Short is Oliver, a flailing director who hasn’t had successful in decades.
Both men are infatuated with a true-crime podcast, and when a mysterious death occurs in their Upper side apartment house , they plan to start a true-crime podcast of their own.
Given that premise, you would be forgiven for expecting something broader and more manic — and perhaps , when it involves the topic of podcasting, quite a touch out-of-touch — than the series finishes up delivering. Certainly the opening minutes of the primary episode seem to satisfy those expectations — there’s Martin walking down an UWS street during a porkpie while we hear his voice reading a gravid and overwritten little bit of narration. There’s Short, during a flashy purple jacket, narrating his own over-the-top thoughts on life in ny City.
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It probably won’t click until midway through the primary episode that those two monologues — and a 3rd one, delivered by another neighbor, Selena Gomez’s Mabel — are offered as parodies of a sort of portentous narration often found in true-crime podcasts.
It’s just one of several clues that the series is more savvy, more in on the joke, than you would possibly expect.
There’s the name of that podcast they love, for instance : All isn’t OK In Oklahoma. That’s a solid little bit of business. There’s the very fact that both Martin and Short are modulating their usual performances to play up the humanity of their characters. Martin’s Charles is plenty uptight, and may be arrogant, but mostly he’s a tragic and lonely man who features a difficult time connecting with others. Oliver is strictly the type of smarmy show-biz phony Short’s made a career out of ridiculing, but he’s dialed way, way down here. Short’s a legend, and in fact are often hilarious when he’s going big, but as Oliver, he finds the jokes, rather than lunging at them.
Another thing the show gets right is Gomez‘ Mabel, who often functions as a cool, sardonic foil, undercutting Martin and Short’s whole “clueless uncle” vibe. The grounded energy her character brings, to mention nothing of the secrets she’s keeping, help propel the series along.
Sure, Only Murders within the Building makes the method of conceiving, making and launching a podcast look hilariously easy — Oliver’s recording technique of waving a mic within the general direction of his subject, for example, would get him a stern talking-to by any real producer, and therefore the less said of the notion that a person of Oliver’s background could so quickly rise up to hurry on the ins and outs of equalizing, compressing and balancing multiple audio tracks, the higher .
But they’re shortcuts and workarounds made for the sake of the story, and that they are often forgiven, because the story works. As their amateur murder investigation deepens, the twists keep piling up, the herrings get redder and redder, and everybody , even the murder victim, gets a backstory that ties neatly (but not too neatly) into the most plot. Of the eight episodes (out of ten) screened for critics, most feature a flash or two of dreamlike surreality, and rather than throwing off the tone, such passages deftly layer in emotions the characters aren’t yet prepared to precise in dialogue.
In the end, Only Murders within the Building is not the wacky farce suggested by its stars and plot, and that is an honest thing. It’s more muted, more real, and it’s shrewdly knowing about who its characters are, and what they need . it is also very funny, which isn’t particularly surprising — but it features grounded, satisfyingly nuanced performances from Martin and Short, which is.