By Noah Gittell
Steve Martin first met Martin Short the day they began shooting “Three Amigos!” in 1985, and although that film wasn’t the box-office success it should have been, it began a fruitful partnership that produced two “Father of the Bride” movies, innumerable talk show appearances, and a long-running two-man stage show that’s currently touring the nation. Their union continues with “Only Murders in the Building”, a warmly satisfying and surprisingly macabre Hulu series that pairs the two veteran comic actors with young star Selena Gomez. Three episodes in, the results are equal parts intriguing and disappointing, but anytime Martin and Short are on screen together, it’s a burst of joy not to be taken for granted. It’s not often two people can make you laugh for 35 years.
The series blends an old form with a new one: a whodunit mixed with a true crime podcast. Martin plays Charles Haden-Savage, an aging actor who once helmed a successful police drama but never came up with a second act for his career. He befriends Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), a has-been Broadway producer now badly behind on his rent, when they bond over a true crime podcast with which they’re both obsessed. Soon, the true crime comes to them. There’s a suicide in their lavish Upper West Side building, but with their podcast obsession having rewired their brains, Charles and Oliver become convinced of foul play. They record their investigation in real time, hoping that the resulting podcast will be the career boost they both need.
When Martin and Short (the fact that their names sound so funny next to each other gives their partnership an extra comic jolt) are on screen, “Only Murders” is effortlessly watchable and occasionally hilarious. Their lived-in chemistry pays off handsomely; while the characters spend much of the first three episodes arguing about the direction of the podcast, they also have a deep underlying fondness for one another. Over the years, the two actors have mastered the art of the affectionate insult, and Short, in particular, makes good use of it here. When Martin plays the accordion to record the score for their podcast, Short cuts him off and quips that he sounds like he’s “DJing a hobbit’s wedding.”
Beyond their natural rapport, both actors create well-rounded characters that engender sympathy as well as laughs. Martin’s character hints at a troubled relationship with his parents, while Short accesses the desperation of a figure who was clearly once the toast of Broadway and is now hanging on to his last scrap of relevance. Following his riveting guest spot in the first season of “The Morning Show”, Short is now doing the most poignant work of his career. His wet eyes and unkempt hair hint at a man on the verge of collapse, and it makes his goofiness feel like a performance constructed to stave off the darkness.
Given the richness of these characters, it’s a little bizarre that the show’s creators chose to invest so much time in Mabel, the character played by Selena Gomez. Mabel grew up in and around the building and has a secret connection to the victim that’s revealed slowly. At least in the first three episodes, Mabel is underwritten, but it doesn’t help that Gomez also underplays her, opting for recessive acting style that feels out of sync with the more traditional showmanship of her co-stars. Her face barely moves, as if in a perpetual state of fear-based paralysis, and her tone vacillates between deadpan and actually deceased.
It’s a justifiable choice by Gomez, who’s playing a character that holds her secrets tight, but a good actor can do little on the surface while still hinting at the turmoil beneath. Gomez doesn’t have that ability, and the narrative momentum generated by Martin and Short comes to a screeching halt whenever Gomez is on screen. Since she holds the show’s mysteries in her story, her misguided performance also makes it difficult to care too much about how the story resolves. In the end, you’re mostly waiting for the other two amigos to take back the show.
Still, it’s early in the story, and it’s never wise to judge a show — or a performance — after only three episodes. Maybe there’s a reason for this tonal imbalance, besides the younger demographic that Gomez brings to a series that would otherwise struggle to resonate with viewers born after Carter was president.
With seven episodes to go, there is still room for the show’s disparate elements to cohere. Since the entire series is co-written by Martin, who also penned several of his better films including “Roxanne” and “L.A. Story”, there’s still reason to believe the show is going somewhere special. After all, they panned “Three Amigos!”, too.
<A new episode of “Only Murders in the Building” airs on Tuesday on Hulu.>