The only new show I care about this fall is Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building, the show that as writer Rachel Handler put it dares to ask, What would it be like if Nora Ephron made a murder mystery?
Only Murders in the Building has strong Nora Ephron energy— rachel handler (@rachel_handler) September 8, 2021
Centered on a group of true crime obsessives who start their own podcast after a fellow apartment building resident dies under mysterious circumstances, Only Murders stars Steve Martin, Martin Short, Selena Gomez, the picturesque and autumnal Upper West Side of New York, and a variety of enchanting outerwear.
The name of this column is “One Good Thing,” so you may be expecting to hear that Only Murders in the Building is, in some straightforward and ontological sense, “good.” I cannot do that. The murder mystery plot, which features such suspects as Sting playing himself, is best described as “pretty okay.” The jokes tend to lean on tired boomer-versus-zillennial gags (“Calls bother them for some reason!”). The show’s occasional stabs at formula breaking, including an episode with no spoken dialogue, are more notable for their laudable ambition than for their uneven execution.
What I can tell you instead is that the vibes are immaculate.
Only Murders in the Building, created by Martin and John Hoffman, with all three of the leads executive producing alongside Hoffman and Dan Fogelman, is Nora Ephron-esque in its total commitment to atmosphere. As in the best of Ephron’s work, that atmosphere is the one that New York’s Upper West Side radiates in all the purest fantasies of autumn: crisp, cozy, and bohemian. The leaves are orange, the light is golden, and there’s a chill in the air and a crackle of energy all around you. The only thing you can do in response is stride out of your tastefully decorated apartment in a strikingly oversized sweater and be adorable as heck about it.
And so we get Selena Gomez stalking down the street in a marigold-yellow faux fur jacket and plaid pants, scowling behind her impeccable sunglasses. We get Martin Short twirling past a cab in a violet wool Haider Ackermann coat, complete with coordinating purple silk scarf. We get Steve Martin preparing an omelet in front of an Ed Ruscha print in a jewel box of an emerald green kitchen. The choices are rooted in character, sure (costume designer Dana Covarrubias wanted Gomez’s clothes to look like armor, and production designer Curt Beech wanted Martin’s apartment to reflect past wealth), but mostly it’s about the vibes.
There is, more or less, a plot for all these vibes to arrange themselves around. Gomez, Short, and Martin all play neighbors in an enormous and glamorous apartment building called the Arconia. Martin is a former TV detective named Charles-Haden Savage, whose only real social stimulation comes from getting recognized on the street and who, lately is getting recognized less and less. Short is Oliver Putnam, a Broadway director who surrounds himself with souvenirs from a career of flops. Gomez is Mabel, a closed-off young woman who — Oliver and Charles note early on — is much too young and not nearly wealthy enough to be living in a building like the Arconia.
Charles, Oliver, and Mabel are all isolated, melancholy figures, but they all have one thing in common: They’re all superfans of the same true crime podcast. The building murder is just the excuse they need to start a podcast of their own and dive into the mystery. But! All three of our main characters are harboring secrets of their own!
Look, is it groundbreaking stuff? No, but who cares? At one point when Mabel is doing a stakeout, she swathes herself in a long coat made out of teddy bear fabric that looks so cozy I felt compelled to burn down everything in my life that is not getting that coat for my own.
Streaming TV and especially Netflix has populated itself lately with a series of shows that have showy production designs and high-profile casts but are ultimately hollow at their core — shows like Queen’s Gambit and Mare of Easttown and White Lotus, shows that use their beauty and enormous budgets to present themselves as important works of art and then fail to justify their own weightiness. But what keeps Only Murders in the Building from joining their ranks is its appealingly restrained sense of scale.
Only Murders in the Building is under no illusions that it has something vital to say about sexism or poverty or colonialism. It is not aiming to reinvent the venerable formula of the TV mystery series. It offers a few pointed critiques of true crime as a genre and the general state of law enforcement in the US and then it leaves well enough alone. It just wants you to vibe, and as a result, it over-delivers where its peers underdeliver.
I, for one, am here for it. I only want one thing, and that is to be cozy and wear impeccable sweaters and solve crimes. Only Murders in the Building exists to satisfy that simple desire.
Only Murders in the Building is streaming on Hulu. For more recommendations from the world of culture, check out the One Good Thing archives.