It’s always pretty cool when they have one of those all-star, multi-generational sessions at the Kennedy Center Honors or the Rock and Roll Hall of Fame ceremony or the Grammys, with pop/rock/soul pioneers from the 1960s and 1970s jamming with musicians half their age. They come from different generations and different worlds, but what they have in common is a love for what they do — and of course they can all play.
We get the acting equivalent of that in the 10-part Hulu comedy/drama crime series “Only Murders in the Building,” a whip-smart and wryly observational gem starring longtime amigos and frequent collaborators, the 76-year-old Steve Martin and the 71-year-old Martin Short, who are as sharp and funny and brilliant as we’d expect them to be. The two comedic legends are joined by Selena Gomez in what turns out to be inspired casting. The 29-year-old Gomez is a true co-star in the series and does a superb job of meshing with Martin and Short to form one of the more entertaining albeit unlikely friendship trios in recent memory. They’re just a ball to watch together.
The tone is set for “Only Murders” in the opening credits sequence, which looks like a series of New Yorker covers turned to animation. Martin (who co-created the series with John Hoffman) plays Charles Hayden-Savage, who had a long and lucrative run as “Detective Brazzos” on a TV crime show in the 1990s but hasn’t worked much since. Short is Oliver Putnam, a pompous theater director who had some hits back in the day but is best known for his notorious flop: “Splash! The Musical,” which had a disastrous opening when the hydraulics designed to open the stage and reveal a gigantic swimming pool failed — and the unwitting chorus dancers wound up landing with one splat after another on the stage. (Chorus dancers tend to blindly follow one another, notes Oliver.) Gomez is Mabel, a quirky loner who is haunted by her past.
They all live in the Arconia, a posh Manhattan co-op, but they don’t really know each other until a fire alarm evacuates the building and they wind up sitting at the same table in a restaurant across the street — and all three turn out to be huge fans of the sensational hit true crime podcast “All is Not OK in Oklahoma” (the host is played by Tina Fey in a fantastic extended cameo). When it’s revealed a young man named Tim Kono has been found shot dead in his apartment in the Arconia, the police quickly rule it a suicide — but Charles, Oliver and Mabel think it could be murder, and they decide to team up to investigate the crime, and of course chronicle their adventures in their very own podcast.
Let the hijinks begin, with twists and turns around every corner. Mabel is the best investigator of the bunch, coming up with some great clues and key pieces of evidence, while Oliver is more concerned with reviving his career as the producer of the podcast, with Charles as the narrator and Oliver giving him notes such as, “[This sounds] like a Ken Burns documentary on the history of boredom.” Meanwhile, the Arconia is filled with colorful characters who might also be suspects, including Sting in a wonderfully self-effacing turn as, well, Sting; Nathan Lane as a chicken wrap mogul who has bankrolled a number of Oliver’s stage productions and is now the sponsor of the podcast, and Amy Ryan as a bassoonist and possible love interest for Charles, who has been alone for many years.
The title of the series comes from an exchange when it’s learned there’s been a murder in the park and perhaps the podcast should expand to include that crime, but the trio decides the series must be about “only murders in the building.” That kind of deadpan humor runs throughout the series, but there are also moments of genuine emotion and heart, as we learn the back stories of all three main characters. True, they didn’t meet under the best circumstances, but these were three lonely souls who found each other at just the right time — and now they’re podcast buddies, and maybe even crime-solvers as well.