"Only Murders in the Building"

Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez hoist a frothy Hulu mystery series

"Only Murders in the Building"
Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, and Martin Short in “Only Murders in the Building”

One of the many meta-charms of “Only Murders in the Building,” a new ten-episode series on Hulu, is the way it replicates a certain actuality of Manhattan living: That famous people will turn up next to you in line at the bank, or one table over at a restaurant, or in the elevator of your building, and that this is not a big deal yet will never stop being a big deal. The show nominally stars the odd trio of Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez – two amigos and an amiga – yet look closely at the celebrity podcaster in the opening moments of the first episode, and it’s Tina Fey in a schmatte. A few episodes on, Nathan Lane wanders through like a man looking for his assigned seat. Later still, a very famous pop star plays himself as a testy and possibly homicidal upstairs neighbor, and he has a high old time doing so.

The series, which premieres with three half-hour episodes Tuesday, August 31, before going weekly, considers New York life, Upper West Side division, as an ongoing production in which everyone’s putting on their own show. At the center stage are our three heroes, denizens of the decrepit but still royal apartment building The Arconia (standing in for the Ansonia, the Dakota, and other Broadway-to-Central Park duchies). Charles (Martin) was the star of a hit detective show in the 1990s and is now an obsessive-compulsive recluse. Oliver (Short) is a has-been stage director whose production of “Splash: The Musical” destroyed his career. Gomez is Mabel, an affectless twenty-something treating her aunt’s apartment as a squat. All that unites them is a shared love of true crime podcasts and their certainty that a recent suicide in the building was anything but.

Martin Short and Steve Martin in “Only Murders in the Building”

The show is delightful in part because it doesn’t try to break new ground; it knows everyone loves a good murder mystery for the comfort of following the genre’s rules, and it doesn’t fiddle with those rules so much as expand them outward with a light satirical touch. In their quest to find out who killed Tim Kono, an arch young Wall Street macher, Charles and Oliver and Mabel dumpster dive in the Arconia’s basement, bribe building personnel, partake in some light breaking and entering – the usual stuff. But Oliver, a Broadway baby desperate for a rebound, starts recording their sleuthing as a podcast in its own right, which brings out his nascent Bob Fosse and Charles’ inner ham while blithely poking holes in the addictive pomposities of “Serial,” “Dirty John,” and other audio hits. “Only Murders in the Building” starts as a story, then becomes a story about a story, and by the middle of the run is threatening to become a story about a story about a story. Only funny. In the process, it gently suggests that these characters are much better at performing their lives than living them.

But that’s weighing down the thing too much when the pleasure is in the shabby-genteel New Yorkiness of “Only Murders in the Building” – it’s like Woody Allen but with an awareness of its lack of self-awareness – and in the performances. Martin, who co-created the show with John Hoffman (“Grace and Frankie”), and Short, who’s one of the executive producers (as is Gomez), are practically an old vaudeville team by now, with interlocking rhythms of insult and riposte that feel cozily marital. Gomez is the Millennial sand in the machinery, and if her intentionally flat line delivery can grate at times, she plays Mabel as a fraught reality principal to these two old duffers, hermetically sealed in their aging Fairway-to-Zabar’s theme park. Among other things, “Only Murders in the Building” is a reminder that New York City belongs to a person for only about 20 years before it’s ruthlessly handed off to the next generation.

Martin Short in “Only Murders in the Building”

The supporting cast is fine as well, with a murderer’s row of New York acting talent milling through the lobby and hallways. Jane Houdyshell, Jackie Hoffman, Michael Cyril Creighton, and there’s Amy Ryan as a come-hither bassoonist with an eye on Martin’s Charles. Troupers all. That said, a word about Martin Short, and the word is joy. (You may be particularly taken with the opening of episode three, a flashback to a pony-tailed Oliver selling “Splash: The Musical” to investors with all the lunatic jazz hands in his arsenal.) If you’ve been following Short since the late 1970s, you know he’s one of the most inspired comics of the entire SNL/SCTV founding phalanx, with an unhinged energy that, as was true with Robin Williams, seems to come from some mysterious dynamo within. Unlike Williams, Short has rarely seemed plagued by doubt (although his character here is), and his playfulness, the way the wind seems to whip happily through his body and his comic imagination, is tonic to a weary soul. Which, honestly, includes all of us at this point. Enjoy.