Martin Short gives a master class in “Only Murders in the Building,” the 10-episode Hulu series in which he stars with Selena Gomez and Steve Martin. (The first three episodes premiere Tuesday.) It’s not a class in acting or comedy so much as it is a seminar in agelessness and professionalism, and in Short’s unmatched ability to turn self-absorption into a virtue.
Martin, who conceived of the show, created it with John Hoffman and stars in it — Martin’s first continuing role on television — is the elephant in the spacious rooms of the Upper West Side prewar apartment building where “Only Murders” is set. (The exteriors and the courtyard are those of the grand Belnord at Broadway and 86th Street.)
But it is Short, his frequent collaborator, who gives the show some comic spark and humanity, making Martin and Gomez his foils, in the most charming way possible. He steals every scene, not through grandstanding but with the steady skill of an old pro. He slays with filler dialogue (“You’re kidding me!” when his character isn’t allowed to return to his apartment) and throwaway gags (“Oh, you’re not Scott Bakula?” aimed at the always graciously self-deprecating Martin). You wish he were onscreen every moment.
He’s onscreen enough to carry you through “Only Murders,” an otherwise benign grab bag of familiar elements. It’s a lampoon of New York eccentricity, an ever so slightly mawkish tale of golden-agers getting their mojo back, and a cozy mystery of the closed-room variety, though in this case the room is a hulking co-op apartment building.
The one original ingredient in this blend is showbiz comedy: the three lead characters are all obsessed with true-crime podcasts, and when a fellow resident of their building is murdered in his apartment, they whip up their own broadcast titled “Only Murders in the Building.” (The series has some vanity-project vibes, and the inscrutability of the title doesn’t help dispel them. It refers to one character’s insistence that their podcast remain strictly local; imagine Martin saying, “Only murders IN THE BUILDING.”)
The central trio, pulled together by the murder, represent different shades of New York narcissism. Charles (Martin), a once-famous TV actor, is smug and misanthropic; Oliver (Short), a once-successful Broadway director, is gabby and theatrical; the much younger Mabel (Gomez), about whom little is known, is laconic and disdainful.
As they bond over their shared grisliness and get excited about both solving a mystery and creating a podcast, there’s fun to be had from Oliver and Charles’s bickering, and the amateur detective work, while pretty routine, passes by painlessly. The depiction of co-op life will be amusing at least to those familiar with the real thing, and it’s fleshed out by a great supporting cast drawn from New York theater: Nathan Lane as a deli king and sometime Broadway angel, Amy Ryan as a possible love interest for Charles, Jayne Houdyshell as the foul-mouthed board president, Vanessa Aspillaga as the super. Da’Vine Joy Randolph shows up as a real detective who despises true-crime podcasts, and Tina Fey and Sting (as himself) drop in for entertaining cameos.
All of those seasoned performers provide moments of pleasure, and the various narrative threads play out with polished proficiency. But “Only Murders” doesn’t gel into something beyond the ordinary. Part of the problem is the time devoted to the show’s sentimental side, in which the podcast’s success might repair Oliver’s relationship with his son, return Charles’s self-esteem and solve the riddles of Mabel’s troubled past, breaking all of them out of their lonely New York shells.
That material takes some of the life out of what’s otherwise a slight but charming comedy, and it doesn’t do any favors to Martin, whose performance is a little dour and closed off, or to Gomez, who looks uncomfortable and occasionally terrified. (With all the veteran talent on the set, you would think that someone could have helped her relax and find something natural to play.)
It never slows down Short, however; he can turn on a dime and make Oliver’s desperation touching, then sail right back into high comic mode. He’s the real killer in the building.