By Manik Sharma Oct. 05, 2021
Murder mysteries land on OTT platforms these days with frightening similar numbers to FIRs in police registers. Only Murders in the Building, is a radically inventive show that aptly critiques this hunger for bloodlust.
True Crime is such an international obsession that it now has continental genres. Stories set in the Nordic countries (Denmark, Finland, Iceland, Norway and Sweden) have carved their own identity in the world as the location of cold, icy and slowly paced thrillers. Korean and Eastern crime dramas are recognised as territorially more rural and imaginatively unique.
We, of course, know of the more popular English fare that has delivered cult shows like True Detective, Top of the Lake, The Dublin Murders and most recently the much loved Mare of Easttown. The fact that mysteries around murders are now as common as jokes without punchlines, probably says a lot about us as humans, and the nature of our curiosity. Only Murders in the Building, now playing on Hotstar, is a ripping good yarn around this manic obsession with murder, and the troubling greed with which we now consume violence and loss.
The fact that mysteries around murders are now as common as jokes without punchlines, probably says a lot about us as humans, and the nature of our curiosity.
Only Murders in the Building features the lovely Martin Short, the ever funny Steve Martin, and the odd and even more oddly likeable, Selena Gomez. Martin, Short and Gomez are all residents of a New York building, struggling in some way or the other to run their lives. Another thing they have in common, is their mutual love for true-crime podcasts. After a co-resident dies the three band and bond together for an investigation they, ideally, shouldn’t be undertaking.
One comic misstep after the other, the three rookie investigators stumble onto some real clues that make them part of a more sinister mystery. The plot itself is ingenious to an extent because it pits dysfunctional curious aficionados against an actual crime. There are a lot of meta jokes about the essence of a true crime ‘nut’ itself, with a police officer constantly appalled by their persistence for suspicion.
The show doesn’t just critique the notion of a people obsessed with bloodletting and murder but also on the grim, antique world of true crime shows. In one scene, when people of the building turn up to mourn the victim they happen to emote more for a dead cat rather than the man. Just how vain we are as humans, the show tries to tell us. There are no brooding cops here, or boozy men, abused women and so on, just a couple of kooky has-beens who cannot help but reach out for whatever little life has to offer – even if is the thrill of solving an already solved tale.
The show doesn’t just critique the notion of a people obsessed with bloodletting and murder but also on the grim, antique world of true crime shows.
Steve Martin brings his trademark comic chops in the role of an out-of-work actor still hung up on playing a previously loved detective – Brazzos. Martin Short is a one-hit-wonder Director who simply can’t help but make the wrong choices. His loneliness, and near delusional view of the world also brings in some pathos to what is largely a light world. Selena Gomez plays the mysterious Mabel, who hides things, speaks little and barely acts. Not sure if it’s her inability to act, but in this role, Gomez naturally fits in as the awkward and younger member of this motley group of late-aged losers. The show’s seventh episode maybe one of cinema’s greatest in terms what it achieves.
While Only Murders in the Building, doesn’t actually say it our loud, it kind of does point to our troubling collective obsession with murders and mysteries. How distastefully, or indifferently, the three treat the victim, his life’s sordid details is a comment on the manipulative powers of the genre itself. The fact that simply caring for a mystery’s ends may also in some was translate to empathy. The cold fact is that we are consumers, we eat content up without ever thinking about the balance of power between the viewer and the subject.
Even in the realm of fiction, stories are manipulated and exaggerated, the violence choreographed to intrigue and entertain. In most storylines the victims are often always hapless women who meet traumatic ends. In a country like India, where rapes are so common, romanticising the hunt for vile, brute men doesn’t help the objectivity required to fix a broken system. Crime is crime everywhere, but on tv, it becomes grisly entertainment, even a vehicle for violence that, if it doesn’t translate sexually, may seep through mentally. So much so, the whimsical, sickening criminals are now esoteric and fascinating characters.
Only Murders in a Building, because of the nature of the format itself gives way to mystery. It’s a cop-out, but one that can still be digested for all the other points the show makes. There are a number of simplistic assumptions that also make this series unlikely, but then that may be the point – that murder isn’t as dramatic as tv has made it out to be. Sometimes it’s just vengeful, on the nose, without even the pretence of secrecy. That’s where we are headed, with this obsession. To see death for not what it means but for what it can reveal about people. Everything can then be suspected. Even loss, even grief.