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Short And Martin Showcase Their Familiar Dynamic In 'Only Murders In The Building'


This is FRESH AIR. Writer, actor, comedian and musician Steve Martin has a new project that taps every one of those skills. He stars in the new mystery-comedy series called "Only Murders In The Building," which co-stars Martin Short and Selena Gomez. Steve Martin also co-created the series, along with John Hoffman, a writer-producer on the Netflix series "Grace And Frankie." Our TV critic David Bianculli has this review of "Only Murders In The Building," which begins streaming tomorrow on Hulu.

DAVID BIANCULLI, BYLINE: "Only Murders In The Building" is set in an old fictional Upper West Side New York apartment building called The Arconia. It's a place where aging rock stars and even more aging TV and theater stars live side by side but in relative isolation, until, that is, a murder in the building brings them closer together - some as grieving neighbors, others as suspects and three in particular as amateur investigators capitalizing on the murder to launch a literally homegrown crime series podcast.

Those three are Charles, a long-ago crime show TV star played by Steve Martin, Oliver, a past-his-prime Broadway director played by Martin Short, and Mabel, a young new arrival to the building played by Selena Gomez. As co-creator, Martin is very generous with his material. He gives his co-stars many of the best lines and scenes, while he's largely content to play straight man or toss away droll one-liners. From the very start, "Only Murders" is fun to watch because these two old friends, Steve Martin and Martin Short, so obviously enjoy playing off one another. As evident from their recent stage show and Netflix special called "Steve Martin And Martin Short: An Evening You Will Forget For The Rest Of Your Life," they're as fond of each other as they are of making fun of each other. When their characters first interact in this new series, that's all too clear.

Steve Martin, as retired actor Charles, is in the elevator trying frantically to get the doors to close before the out-of-work theater director Oliver, played by Martin Short, can force his way in. Oliver wins.


MARTIN SHORT: (As Oliver) Hold it.


SHORT: (As Oliver) Sorry. Thanks. I just - oh, got it. Sorry, I'm just - I have an important thing a little bit later.

STEVE MARTIN: (As Charles) Yeah, me, too.

SHORT: (As Oliver) Oh, hello. Filming something today?

MARTIN: (As Charles) I'm sorry?

SHORT: (As Oliver) All the makeup. I just assumed.

MARTIN: (As Charles) I'm not wearing makeup.

SHORT: (As Oliver) Oh, OK. Me, neither.

BIANCULLI: For these characters, that would have been plenty of interactions for one day, but a fire alarm empties the building and sends the residents spilling out into a local eatery. It's there that Charles and Oliver discover something they have in common - they're both fans of a current crime series podcast, and so is Selena Gomez's Mabel, whose eager eavesdropping on their conversation is so obvious, Oliver demands an introduction.


SHORT: (As Oliver) Who are you, you fascinating creature? I mean, we got our places 30 years ago when the Arconia was affordable. But you - your parents have a place there or something?

MARTIN: (As Charles) Good God, you don't have to answer that, Mabel. I mean, unless you want to because I'm also curious.

SELENA GOMEZ: (As Mabel) How do I know you?

SHORT: (As Oliver) Oh, Charles was in an old TV series many, many years ago. What was it called? "Bozo's" (ph).

MARTIN: (As Charles) "Brazos" (ph).

GOMEZ: (As Mabel) Oh, OK.

SHORT: (As Oliver) As for me, directing is my day job (laughter). I'm sure you're aware.

BIANCULLI: When a body is discovered in the Arconia, the three team up and launch their own podcast, which they title "Only Murders In The Building." This sets them off as amateur sleuths in search of the killer and also some social media fame. That plot makes room for lots of twists and turns and eccentric supporting characters. Amy Ryan plays a musician who plays the bassoon and duets with Steve Martin, who plays the concertina. Nathan Lane, Tina Fey, Jimmy Fallon and Sting are among the supporting and bit players here. And the show's style veers from Hope and Crosby Road movies to Laurel and Hardy silent comedies.

And speaking of silence, one of the episodes of "Only Murders In The Building" - for reasons I won't spoil - runs completely without dialogue. I know of only a few other series in TV history that have attempted almost dialogue-free episodes. There's the famous Hush episode from "Buffy The Vampire Slayer" and The Invaders from "The Twilight Zone," a less-famous episode of "Mr. Robot" and a totally obscure episode of "77 Sunset Strip."

But the biggest surprise of all in "Only Murders In The Building" is the winning performance by singer and actress Selena Gomez, whose pop culture career began opposite the purple dinosaur on "Barney & Friends." Her character here from the start is meant to pit her youth against the age of her fellow podcasters in crime, but Gomez injects her role with a lot more sensitivity and bite than that. Here she is, discovered by Charles and Oliver inside Oliver's apartment.


MARTIN: (As Charles) Oh, how did you get here?

GOMEZ: (As Mabel) It was open.

SHORT: (As Oliver) I don't lock my door, never have.

MARTIN: (As Charles) That's insane.

SHORT: (As Oliver) Neighborly.

GOMEZ: (As Mabel) I mean, a murderer probably lives in the building, but I guess old white guys are only afraid of colon cancer and societal change. Sad.

BIANCULLI: "Only Murders In The Building" is a 10-part comedy mystery series, but Hulu made only eight episodes available for preview. As a result, I still don't know whodunit, but so far, I really like the way they're doing it.

GROSS: David Bianculli is a professor of television studies at Rowan University in New Jersey. He reviewed the new series "Only Murders In The Building," which starts streaming tomorrow on Hulu.

Tomorrow on FRESH AIR, we begin a series of shows on soul music, featuring interviews from our archive with performers featured in Questlove's documentary, "Summer Of Soul," including Gladys Knight, B.B. King, Mavis Staples as well as Questlove. Tomorrow, we'll hear my interview with Aretha Franklin, who's played by Jennifer Hudson in the new biopic "Respect," and from Jerry Wexler, who produced Aretha Franklin's recordings at Atlantic Records. In the film, he's portrayed by Marc Maron. I hope you'll join us.


ARETHA FRANKLIN: (Singing) Baby, baby, sweet baby, there's something that I just got to say. Baby, baby, sweet baby, you left me hurting in a real cold way. Speak your name, and I feel a thrill. You said I do, hey, and I said I will. I told you to just be true and give me just a little time, wait on me, baby. I want you to be all mine. I just get so blue since you've been gone, baby, since you've been gone.

GROSS: Our interviews and reviews are produced and edited by Amy Salit, Phyllis Myers, Sam Briger, Lauren Krenzel, Heidi Saman, Therese Madden, Ann Marie Baldonado, Thea Chaloner, Seth Kelley and Kayla Lattimore. Our digital media producer is Molly Seavy-Nesper. I'm Terry Gross.


FRANKLIN: (Singing) Baby, baby, sweet baby, I didn't mean to run you away. It was pride on my lips but not in my heart to say the things that lead you to stray Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

David Bianculli is a guest host and TV critic on NPR's Fresh Air with Terry Gross. A contributor to the show since its inception, he has been a TV critic since 1975.