Film & TV

The Real Pleasure in Only Murders in the Building

Mabel (Selena Gomez), Oliver (Martin Short) and Charles (Steve Martin) in Only Murders in the Building. (Craig Blankenhorn/ Hulu)
It’s not the plotlines. It’s the New Yorkiness of the show.

I was intrigued by the idea of a comedy that spoofs true-crime podcasts . . . but then I discovered something that changed everything.

The enjoyable new Hulu series Only Murders in the Building, starring Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez, is an amusing but trifling comedy-murder-mystery. The drawn-out nature of the thing — one red herring after another gets brought in and dispensed with — is its weakest aspect. Netflix’s Adam Sandler/Jennifer Aniston comedy Murder Mystery was both funnier and narratively tighter.

Only Murders in the Building will present ten half-hour episodes, of which I’ve seen eight. After the first four or five, I pretty much lost interest in the plot, which strikes me as contrived for the sake of chewing up time rather than for any internal, organic reason. Nevertheless, I tore through those eight half-hours because I loved everything but the supposed main reason to watch the show.

The cast is delightful: Even Martin Short, who has annoyed me for more than 30 years with his mugging and his silly voices, is amusing in it, while in a straight-man role Steve Martin exudes likeability as always. As for Gomez, as she showed in Woody Allen’s otherwise mediocre A Rainy Day in New York, she is a true movie star with impeccable comic timing. Filling out the background are sly appearances by Tina Fey, Nathan Lane, and Sting.

Non–New Yorkers, you can stop reading now. Go do something else. You’ll be bored by everything I have to say. Not only will you be bored; you may want to slap me with a large mackerel. I don’t want to be fish-slapped, so I’m giving you an out. See ya later!

What most interests me about the show, which probably would have been better had it played up the comedy instead of the not-especially-grabby mystery, is that Martin, Fey, and Sting are all Upper West Siders. Martin lives on Central Park West. I once rode an M104 bus up Broadway with Fey and her daughter. I think I spotted Sting crossing Columbus Circle south of his home, also on Central Park West, a few years ago. Sting lives in a $66 million apartment, I live in a 660-square-foot apartment, so it’s fair to say there’s a real bond there. We’re all neighbors.

I’m kidding, but also not: The Upper West Side, as anyone who has ever loved You’ve Got Mail will agree, is a jaunty neighborhood with a very specific feel. There’s a strong Jewish influence, manifested in everything from the sense of humor to the shops to the sight of groups of men in yarmulkes and suits strolling off to services on Friday evenings. (Jews initially took to the area because, by pure coincidence and for decades, co-op boards on the East Side could never quite find accommodation for anyone named Cohen or Leibowitz. Jews later discovered that the West Side is more interesting anyway). There’s lots of overlap between Jews and showbiz people, and the Upper West Side is stacked high (or piled deep) with actors, producers, classical musicians, editors, writers, and assorted other creatives of all types. Not those tattooed ragamuffins from Rent, mind you — I’m talking about pros as opposed to posers. People who know what they’re doing, and have the seven-figure co-op apartments to show for it.

The two Martins play familiar neighborhood types — Steve Martin is an actor who, judging by his luxury flat, did very well as a television detective. But he was kind of a hack at his best (there’s a joke about how his whodunit was so formulaic it aired on CBS). Martin Short plays a preternaturally overenthusiastic theater director who piloted a lot of productions straight into the rocks. (Newark, Newark is among his credits, according to the show posters in his apartment.) He, too, did well, for a while, but he’s barely hanging on now. Out of both curiosity and the potential for a new career as podcasters, they start sniffing around the death by apparent suicide of a young man in a building called “the Arconia,” a portmanteau that evokes the Ansonia and the Dakota, two of the famous high-end buildings in the neighborhood.

The luxury building where the Martins and their fellow podcast host played by Selena Gomez’s character is the Belnord at 225 West 86th Street, where Matt Damon used to live with his family. It’s a grand old edifice a stone’s throw from my place. Okay, I can’t throw a stone 445 yards (the distance according to Google), but still: neighborhood pride. Not only do I love all of the exterior locations, I love the interiors as well: Everybody lives in a high-end co-op with Oahu-sized kitchen islands and living rooms large enough to host a jousting tournament. And yet within this culture of amazing real estate, just as is true of the Upper West Side, there are varying levels of class and status. Gomez’s character lives in the building only because she’s looking after the space of a wealthy relative while it’s being renovated.

So where am I going with this? Nowhere much; it’s just that a richly detailed setting can make a show work, as it does with FX’s new comedy Reservation Dogs, set in Indian territory in Oklahoma. I’m taken with the New Yorkiness of the show, its fond observational jokes about the ever-lengthening parade of slightly odd, often irritating, but unusually interesting people in my neighborhood. You might run into a pretentious podcast host (Fey’s character) who thinks she’s a world-famous celebrity, or meet a theater producer (Lane) who is actually just a deli king, or endure an elevator ride with Sting during which he might tell you to keep your damn dog off him. (One episode of the show is titled “The Sting” in his honor.)

True, most city murders are a lot less glamorous and interesting than the one in this show, and two weeks ago there was a half-naked homeless guy sprawled out for two days near the 86th Street subway stop that Steve Martin passes by in the opening minutes of the series, but kudos to any show that manages to shore up any element of the New York fantasy these days.

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