There’s a lovely meta humour to Only Murders In The Building, now streaming on DisneyPlus Hotstar. At one point, its three true crime-obsessed protagonists begin critiquing the investigative podcast they’ve been listening to. It has all the ingredients of a good whodunit in place — a missing young girl, a remote location, a dog that’s dug up a piece of evidence — but is taking too long to wrap up. “I’m all for a good peeling of the onion, but let’s pace it up, people,” says Oliver (Martin Short). You get the sense that it’s only a matter of time before the characters’ obsession with fictional crimes lead to them being entangled in a real-life one. Oliver’s statement thus lays out what the show wants to achieve — a good peeling of the onion, but this time, one that’s well-paced too. To that end, the show opens with a murder, then flashes back to two months earlier, setting up a timeline and introducing its characters.
All three protagonists are positioned as being uniquely qualified to unravel the show’s central mystery, while simultaneously being completely out of their depth. There’s Charles (Steve Martin), who shot to fame as the detective Brazzos in a hit 90s TV show of the same name, and Mabel (Selena Gomez), who binges Dateline for tips on how to protect herself and drifts off to sleep by envisioning herself confidently stabbing any intruders to death. At night, they listen to the (fictional) true-crime podcast All Is Not Okay In Oklahoma as Charles marks out the scene of the crime with sticky notes on a map and Mabel takes meticulous notes. Oliver prefers the more meditative approach, unwinding with a glass of wine by his side. The three live at post New York apartment building, The Arconia, and eventually cross paths when they discover that one of their neighbours has seemingly committed suicide.
The evidence leaves no room for doubt. The victim, Tim Kono (Julian Chihi), was under financial stress, left a sucide note and even had gunpowder residue on his hands. Still, the trio, fancying themselves amateur detectives and having run into Tim in their elevator just an hour earlier, are incredulous. He was impatiently awaiting a package to be delivered the next morning — why would he kill himself?
As they attempt to prove that Tim was murdered, the episode reveals how this endeavour, and their larger obsession with true crime, only serve to fill the gaping loneliness in their lives. Charles is a has-been, struggling to find work, having to audition and being offered only non-speaking parts. Oliver, an out-of-work director, has to make frequent trips to Jersey to beg his son for money. Mabel has offered to renovate the apartment for her aunt but it’s currently in a state of disrepair, crumbling around her. All three characters live alone, and are lonely.
On discovering that Tim’s package contained an engagement ring, they decide to keep investigating, chronicling their efforts in a podcast called, what else but Only Murders In The Building. But, as Charles puts it, “Sometimes it’s easier to figure out someone else’s secret than it is to deal with your own.” It’s revealed that he lied to Mabel earlier when he said he always lived alone. He’s evasive when a neighbour asks about his former girlfriend Lucy, who once shared his apartment. Mabel lied about knowing someone too. A photograph in her apartment reveals that she and Tim were best friends.