The central thrust of Only Murders in the Building is, of course, a murder, with the odd throuple of Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez as true crime enthusiasts who start their own podcast after a grisly incident in the Arconia, their apartment building, pushes them together. The show isn’t breaking the TV mold, but it’s also not trying to—its focus is on its characters, their quirks and eccentricities, the bonds they forge. That is to say, though unraveling the murder proves to be an enterprise full of twists and turns, what’s most surprising—and most wonderful—about the series is the way in which it has distinguished itself as the most romantic show on TV.
Despite the zaniness that its casting and premise might suggest, Only Murders in the Building is a surprisingly quiet show. It doesn’t lack for moments in which Martin and Short can showcase their comedic skills, but the ones that make the most impact are the less in-your-face interludes that illustrate their lives outside of the central mystery. Take, for instance, the musical courtship between Charles (Martin) and Jan (Amy Ryan), a bassoonist who lives on the other side of the Arconia’s courtyard. As people pass underneath their windows, they play phrases to each other, Jan on bassoon and Charles on concertina. It’s a lovely, understated exchange (and reminiscent of between Martin and Bernadette Peters), especially as a wide shot of the courtyard briefly dulls the sound of the music, as if to replicate how faintly a passerby might hear it.
Their courtship isn’t conducted entirely like this; a big part of their storyline also involves Charles’ emotional ineptitude and Jan’s guileless, pun-filled brand of charm. But it serves as a microcosm of the show’s larger dynamics, which are best in these more thoughtful moments. The show’s most compelling episode to date—its seventh, “The Boy from 6B”—goes all-in on that strength, and is also the biggest leap Only Murders takes in terms of experimenting with style. The episode follows Theo Dimas (James Caverly), the deaf son of Teddy Dimas (Nathan Lane), a deli chain mogul and the podcast’s sponsor, and forgoes any audible dialogue at all. The episode reveals a key truth about the mystery that Charles and cohorts Oliver (Short), and Mabel (Selena Gomez) are investigating, and the shift in format encourages the viewer to pay more attention, as well as allowing the characters to express themselves in different ways.
The scenes with Charles and Jan are a delight, as, on a date night in, they dance together and play Scrabble, using their tiles to spell out increasingly obvious innuendos. But there’s another tentative romance playing out, in Theo’s flashbacks to his flirtatious interactions with Zoe (Olivia Reis), an old friend of the murder victim. Though Zoe knows ASL, their dynamic primarily relies on stolen glances and touches, hidden away not least because Zoe already has a boyfriend, and Theo has his protective father. All things considered, they seem star-crossed. Granted, it’s cute until it isn’t, as Zoe has problems of her own, and isn’t necessarily with Theo purely because she likes him, rather than needing the attention he provides.
The Arconia is also home to plenty of platonic love. Martin and Short, real-life friends for decades, have an instant rapport, and the relationship between them and the decades-younger Gomez is surprisingly solid, too. For all that Gomez’s casting might seem like a stunt, she fits in with her co-stars without a hiccup. Even the moments in which she has to explain slang terms to her new, older friends don’t play tritely despite how stock such scenes have become. Gomez’s pairing with Short in “The Boy from 6B” sees the two of them stuck in situations where they’re forced to be as quiet as possible, communicating essentially via pantomime. Though Charles and Oliver get on Mabel’s nerves, she still tags along and jokes with them throughout the series, and their dynamic, which reads as paternal, is consistently sweet. These people care about each other, even if, as is sometimes the case, that concern is mined for jokes, and it’s all the more remarkable given that the characters start the series at odds. Initially, Mabel doesn’t want anything to do with Charles or Oliver, and they don’t immediately trust her, either, as each of the trio is still working through past (and current) issues. It’s once they start to open up, however, that they start to make progress—not just with the investigation, but in their own internal lives.
If there is one ingredient that abounds in Only Murders in the Building, it’s tenderness. The draw may be watching two of the best comics of their time mug with one of today’s biggest pop stars, but what makes it worth sticking around are the sweet, small moments that help make these characters feel less cartoonish and more human. From the characters to the beautiful Arconia building (and a clear affection for New York as a whole), there’s love in every part of the show. There’s murder and intrigue, yes, but that’s just the sheep’s clothing—what really makes this series sing is watching these very different but all very lonely people come together and fall in love. Maybe not romantic love, but love nevertheless.