A Generational-Divide Comedy That’s Also a Crime Story

In Hulu’s newest series, two Boomers and a Millennial try to solve a murder. Friendship ensues.

Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez in Hulu's "Only Murders in the Building"
Craig Blankenhorn / Hulu

Steve Martin and Martin Short’s rapport isn’t that of a comedic partnership so much as that of a musical duo. Since their first collaboration more than 30 years ago in Three Amigos, they have developed a natural rhythm: Martin is the straight man with a wise-ass streak; Short produces over-the-top characters with wild facial contortions. Martin gets the audience to laugh with him; Short, to laugh at him. Theirs is a harmony that comedians often dream of developing but rarely achieve.

In their latest arrangement, the 10-episode series Only Murders in the Building, the pair revisit that familiar tempo, this time as true-crime-podcast-obsessed Manhattanites investigating a death in their tony apartment complex for their own podcast. Martin—in his first regular TV role since the 1970s—stars as Charles, an unemployed actor who still recites lines from the cheesy cop show he once anchored. Short plays Oliver, a theater director whose career is floundering after an ill-advised attempt at making Splash: The Musical. Two fame-adjacent has-beens bumbling around at a crime scene would have probably been enough for an appealingly kooky show. But in Only Murders, which starts streaming tomorrow on Hulu, Martin and Short remix their dynamic with an unexpected third party: the pop star and former Disney Channel mainstay Selena Gomez.

The addition of Gomez—who plays Mabel, a sardonic artist and fellow tenant with a shared podcast obsession—might seem discordant. Yet in pitting Martin and Short’s established routine opposite her wild-card casting, the show evolves from a straightforward parody of true-crime podcasts and their devoted listeners into a goofy yet endearing examination of the generational divide. Oliver still calls the internet the “World Wide Web.” Charles believes that it’s possible to “check all the websites” for clues. Mabel thinks that Sting—another denizen of their building, and at one point a hilariously unsuspecting suspect—is a member of U2. Somehow, these three will solve a crime.

But Only Murders is more than just quippy one-liners demonstrating the obvious knowledge gaps between people born decades apart. Instead, Martin and his co-creator, John Hoffman (Grace and Frankie), mine comedy from the blind spots and insecurities shared by two generations so prone to blaming each other for cultural angst. Charles, Oliver, and Mabel are all supremely confident that they know what’s best for their investigation, and for one another. Despite living in the same luxury apartment building, they all think they’re in touch with the gritty reality of New York. And as much as they hate to admit it, they’re all lonely and searching for direction. Early episodes emphasize each character’s melancholy: Charles, a hopeless romantic, plays the concertina for a neighbor across the courtyard rather than asking her out. Oliver’s odd mannerisms—he only ever eats dip, for example—mask his desperation as he drowns in debt. And Mabel’s deadpan humor belies how vulnerable she feels living alone in the city.

Like previous shows that used crime as a backdrop for comedy about a community’s eccentric inhabitants—such as the gone-too-soon NBC series Trial & Error and the late-’80s Tom Hanks starrer The ’Burbs—the mystery merely simmers in the background, with key plot twists doled out at a satisfying pace. This leaves room for the characters’ bigger challenge: learning to work together. Though Charles and Oliver quickly find common ground in how little they understand Mabel’s Millennial habits—“calls bother them for some reason,” Oliver gripes when the two have to text her—the three don’t make the most amicable team. They initially distrust one another. Mabel realizes that Charles often recites his old show’s dialogue rather than speaking his mind. Oliver’s cagey about his finances, and Charles finds his name-dropping, know-it-all ways irksome. The detective work is satisfying, but watching the investigation force the characters to reveal themselves and build an unanticipated bond is the real reward.

If this is starting to sound too saccharine, don’t worry—there’s still a case to crack. An old-school silliness infuses the trio’s investigative antics. They dig through the trash for clues, stop for a pretzel while tailing a suspect during rush hour, and, of course, accuse the rock god Sting of murder. But at the same time, Only Murders doesn’t excuse the exploitative choice to record a podcast about a neighbor’s death. The show, through episodes featuring the perspectives of other building residents, repeatedly questions the main characters’ voyeuristic ambitions. Why would three people with no interest in one another want to spend so much time together, gathering evidence for a podcast that gets roughly a dozen listeners at most?

The answer, it turns out, harkens back to why Martin, Short, and the show’s producers recruited Gomez in the first place. Charles, Oliver, and Mabel—two Boomers and a Millennial—are all trying to prove their own hypotheses about the crime, even if it means making the murder about them. This self-centeredness mirrors what every generational divide truly amounts to: a hubristic inclination to trust oneself (and one’s own age group) over anyone else. To Martin and Short, there’s something funny about that cycle of inherent mistrust, enough for them to shake up their typical double act.