There’s something thoroughly endearing about the new Hulu series “Only Murders in the Building.” It’s a light comedy about three strangers who join forces to look into a suspicious death in their Manhattan co-op building, the Arconia. Obsessed with true-crime stories, they begin a podcast about their amateur investigation, which is by turns farcical, deadpan, parodic, slapstick, and silly. And occasionally fruitful. Across 10 episodes, Mabel (Selena Gomez), Oliver (Martin Short), and Charles (Steve Martin) determine that the case is indeed a homicide and follow leads no matter how far-fetched to track down the killer.
What’s endearing in the New York-centric show, whose title font looks a lot like The New Yorker’s, is watching Martin and Short work together. They exude the kind of ease and shorthand that’s only possible between longtime friends and colleagues. Their timing is perfectly synced. It’s a rare phenomenon, their hand-in-glove chemistry, especially in a medium primarily attracted to younger talent, and it adds a solidity to the show that keeps it from drifting into nothingness.
Their characters are both pompous, which gives the actors countless opportunities to display absurd erudition and flagrant self-regard — and make fun of them at the same time. Charles is a washed-up actor known for playing a TV detective many years ago, and Oliver is a theater director whose career flatlined after his “Splash! The Musical” bombed. Short, in particular, makes his character’s grandiosity a thing of comic beauty, as you might expect. Everything he does is big, particularly as Oliver tries to bring his theatrical genius to bear on the podcast. The show frequently pokes fun at the clichés of podcasting, and our culture’s fixation on the true-crime genre, and Short is usually the vehicle for those jabs.
What’s also endearing are the grace notes the two actors bring to their characters, so that they aren’t merely cartoons. Martin, who co-created the series with Jonathan Hoffman, brings an aura of pathos to Charles, who has retreated into his cave professionally and romantically. After he meets a woman who also lives in the Arconia, Amy Ryan’s Jan, they play a lovely duet across the courtyard, he on concertina and she on bassoon, neither speaking. But then their first date is a disaster, as he gets lost in the failures of his love life. Oliver is poignant at times, too; he is financially desperate, and those moments when he begs his son for money are all the more affecting in their contrast to his bloated bluster.
Yes, the show is about three investigator-podcasters, and Gomez fits in just fine. They have some chemistry, and her dry stylings help balance out the more extroverted modes of her costars. And as Mabel’s backstory gradually emerges, linking her to the man who was murdered, she becomes more interesting and layered. At times, Gomez can be a bit too bland and monotone, as she brings generation gap humor to the mix. But still, the three form an appealing trio, together serving as a lifeboat for one another in a building, and a city, and a world, where loneliness and isolation can take over.
In the eight episodes provided for review, a number of guests show up and add spark. Sting appears as himself, also a resident of the Arconia, and Nathan Lane is a treat as a deli owner who used to invest in Oliver’s productions. Tina Fey is here, too, in a turn that has a distinct “30 Rock” flavor. But “Only Murders in the Building” is nothing like that show, as it cycles through a variety of tones and paces. It’s a breezy, warm, largely forgettable, but generally enjoyable mystery set in a city of strangers who are just waiting to be sleuths.
ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING
Starring: Steve Martin, Martin Short, Selena Gomez, Amy Ryan
On: Hulu. Premieres Tuesday.