Only Murders In The Building, Reviewed · Melanie Lynskey, Bet-Crapped
Plus white-collar parolees, a Goffard deep cut, and more
Time to choose next month’s bonus-review topic! I’m a bit late on this — and will likely be a bit late on August’s review as well, thanks to family obligations that ate a lot of clock the last few weeks; I apologize! — but I’ll leave it open all week.
(I should clarify that the undercover sting op went nowhere, not the Chameleon podcast, which I assume observes normal narrative rules, hee.) You can vote for multiple options, so whatever looks interesting, tick those boxes! — SDB
Elizabeth Held continues analyzing “meta” true-crime properties — books, pods, and other media that put true crime at the center of their fictional narratives — with a review of Only Murders In The Building.
“A great true crime mystery unpeels itself like an onion. First the crime, then the characters and then their secrets. The secrets are the fun part, who’s telling the truth, who’s lying, what are they hiding.”
Over the next three episodes of Hulu’s comedy series Only Murders In The Building, we get a hint of what the shows three main characters — neighbors in a New York apartment building — are hiding from each other. There’s Charles (Steve Martin), a washed-up actor famous from a ’90s cop show; Oliver (Martin Short), a bankrupt former Broadway producer whose last show, Splash, bombed spectacularly; and Mabel (Selena Gomez), a mysterious twentysomething who somehow affords the building.
Only Murders in Building follows the three amateur sleuths, and true-crime enthusiasts, as they investigate a mysterious death in the apartment building where they all live, and, naturally, record a podcast about their adventure.
When I first heard about the show’s logline months ago, I remember being nervous that it wouldn’t deliver on what sounded like a delightful premise. After viewing the first four episodes, I’ve concluded I should have trusted that Gomez, Martin, and Short would pull through with a charming, funny show. They were a genuine joy to watch, offering both laughs and a compelling mystery.
Martin and Short draw on the chemistry they’ve had for nearly forty years as comedy partners, and the unexpected addition of Gomez makes them both shine brighter. Some of the show’s funniest scenes come as the trio attempt to navigate generational differences. Martin and Short’s characters spend a scene debating how to best contact their young friend, before sending her a text that opens with “Aloha Mabel.”
True-crime fans will find a lot to love about Only Murders. The show does offer some gentle mocking of the genre’s conventions, asking, for example, if it’s possible to produce a podcast about a victim everyone hated. But it also takes the genre seriously. While Charles, Oliver and Mabel are obsessed with true crime, the show never writes them off as kooky or overly morbid, and Tina Fey plays an uber-successful podcast host, with multiple Peabody awards and a $30 million acquisition deal. Fey, doing a solid send-up of Sarah Koenig, offers advice to the trio based on her experience producing the hit podcast “All Is Not OK In Oklahoma.” Other cameos include Nathan Lane, who plays a musical producer in a bit of meta casting, and Sting as himself.
I’ve only seen the first four episodes, so I can’t promise you that Only Murders will stick the landing, but I think it’ll be an enjoyable ride as we learn more and more of Charles, Oliver and Mabel’s secrets. — Elizabeth Held, author of the What To Read If newsletter
We’d love to hear what YOU think of Only Murders In The Building…
…and we’d also like to remind you that our esteemed contributors work hard on their reviews, and we’d like to pay them a bit more. Won’t you consider a paid subscription, for yourself or as a back-to-school gift? — SDB
I’m also interested to hear what you guys think of “The Big House,” a piece by Evan Osnos in a recent New Yorker about Jeffrey D. Grant’s White Collar Support Group. Grant, a former attorney/big shot who did time for wire fraud and money laundering (among other things, he applied for an SBA 9/11 disaster-relief loan he wasn’t eligible for), now runs “an online meeting inspired by twelve-step programs” — but for white-collar criminals. One of Grant’s descriptions of the group’s function is “ethics rehab,” but Osnos also talks about the fact that a lot of cultural attention is paid to re-integrating other kinds of ex-cons into society, and the difficulties thereof; nobody really talks or thinks about what a disgraced hedge-fund manager is supposed to do after he gets paroled.
Which: true, and not an uninteresting subject, but Osnos kind of only glances at the idea that a lot of the group’s target demo is thoroughly unsympathetic. These are, by and large, not people who lacked for educational or nutritional opportunities, or faced institutional bias, so I think the piece could have used a more overt acknowledgment that “I couldn’t admit to my wife that I missed the bonus and she shouldn’t book that ski vacay” is a tough sell in terms of societal shouldering of responsibility. In other words, “greedy” isn’t the same as “desperate.” Any of you read it and have a similar reaction? — SDB
One of the most striking things about a Christopher Goffard longread is the pacing. Goffard, who wrote the Dirty John series for the LA Times and then steered the podcast, also wrote one of the pieces Sarah Weinman recommends at the back of Unspeakable Acts — 2016’s “Framed: A Mystery in Six Parts.” The framee is Kelli Peters; the beef started over a six-year-old in Peters’s after-school program — whose stay-at-home mom used to be an attorney, not for nothing — getting left outside for 20 minutes, and the mom fixating on Peters as a nemesis; the kid’s highly litigious parents tried everything to oust Peters from the program; and then there’s the rest of the suspect pool, which included…Bruce Wayne.
Police knew him well. They had responded to complaints about him wandering onto campus without permission, ranting at school staff, heckling the crossing guard, and videotaping the crosswalk as kids moved through it. At least once, he showed up in a Batman costume, masked and caped, to pick up his son.
He made parents nervous; Peters had felt sorry for him. But now she recalled how he’d wanted her PTA job, how he’d even asked her for copies of the bylaws. Maybe he had studied them, and knew that drug possession would disqualify her from her position.
Cops have an informal phrase for such people, who do not quite meet the requirements of a 51-50, the code for an involuntary psychiatric hold. They are 51-49½, vexing but hard to do anything about.
And then there’s the SAHM’s self-published novel. And the sexting with a firefighter. And the whiny audio embedded in the piece. It’s amazing and super-readable, and THIS one understands that, gracious or not, we’re mostly not attracted to stories of richie fuck-ups for any redemption on offer. It’s the schadenfreude, and you should go enjoy it right now. — SDB
Without looking at her IMDb page, where would you guess Melanie Lynskey’s Bet-Crap is? Twelve percent? Fifteen? …It’s actually lower — which I found surprising, but she has a LOT of credits, and the TV movies/based-on-a-true-stories you’d assume would be lurking in the list actually aren’t there. The three you remember are…it.
And they’re as follows:
Heavenly Creatures, 5 pts (she runs the table here; the hall-of-famer part is arguable, perhaps)
Shattered Glass, 2 pts
The Informant!, 2 pts
This could go as low as 6 points, depending on how you want to score the awards attention, but I think this is about right. That puts Lynskey’s final BETCRP score at 10.8. Feels low to me! Felt SURE there’d be some experimental Manson-girls something or other rattling around in her IMDB entry, or that she was Snowtown for 90 seconds or something. Nope! The three she’s in are choice, and it wouldn’t surprise me to see her in a future American Crime Story, but for now, that’s the score. — SDB
Wednesday on Best Evidence: American Time Story?