Selena Gomez steals the show from comedy legends Martin, Short in Hulu's 'Only Murders in the Building'

  • Mabel (Selena Gomez), Charles (Steve Martin) and Oliver (Martin Short) do some amateur sleuthing at an unorthodox memorial service in the second episode of "Only Murders in the Building."

    Mabel (Selena Gomez), Charles (Steve Martin) and Oliver (Martin Short) do some amateur sleuthing at an unorthodox memorial service in the second episode of "Only Murders in the Building." Courtesy of Hulu

 
 
Posted9/2/2021 7:36 AM

The marketing hook for "Only Murders in the Building," a 10-episode series that premiered Tuesday on Hulu, is obvious: Comedy legends Steve Martin and Martin Short, together on TV and cracking you up! And with a young hot co-star, singer Selena Gomez!

The show you might expect would be funny, yes, but probably hyperactive and over-the-top. A farce, perhaps, with the two old-timers dialing their shtick up to 11 and Gomez -- who became famous on the kids show "The Wizards of Waverly Place" before a string of pop hits including 2013's "Come & Get It" -- trying her best to keep up with them and overcompensating.

 

That was the show that was in my head. I am happy to report that's not the show we got -- and that Gomez is about to become a bona fide screen star.

Gomez brings a warm weariness to Mabel Mora, a Millennial who seems out of place in the ritzy New York apartment building of the title. Steve Martin plays Charles-Haden Savage, an actor who played a popular TV detective in the '90s, but who has come to terms with his subsequent lack of work. Martin Short is Broadway director Oliver Putnam, flamboyant, as you'd expect from Short, but also secretly broke.

When a fire alarm sends them all to the same restaurant, our trio bonds over their mutual love of a true-crime podcast that just dropped its latest episode. We hear a bit of it in the show's first great comedic sequence, a pitch-perfect parody of the genre that features a tiny cameo from an "SNL" legend.

When they return to the building, they learn a dead body has been found on the ninth floor -- and since they're all hooked on murder shows, they know exactly how to sneak their way up there before getting caught.

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In the premiere of "Only Murders in the Building," Upper West Side neighbors Mabel (Selena Gomez), Oliver (Martin Short) and Charles (Steve Martin) bond over a shared love of true crime when a fellow resident dies in their building.
In the premiere of "Only Murders in the Building," Upper West Side neighbors Mabel (Selena Gomez), Oliver (Martin Short) and Charles (Steve Martin) bond over a shared love of true crime when a fellow resident dies in their building. - Courtesy of Hulu

Their illicit investigation of what happened to poor Tim Kono (Julian Cihi) prompts them to create their own podcast about it. But Tim's death isn't the only mystery afoot as our unlikely trio begins to learn more about each other.

Created by Steve Martin and "Grace & Frankie's" John Hoffman, "Only Murders in the Building" is surprisingly artful. The premiere ends with a surreal callback to a black-and-white cutaway from the opening, Episode 2 brings Mabel's iPad sketches to life in short animated sequences. And Siddartha Khosla's musical score tells us with sharp strings and haunting voices that this is no fleeting farce; this show has a weight to it.

Gomez is the one carrying it, both with stabbing dialogue and quiet moments where we can see the weight of her character's past on her face.

But lest we forget, this is a comedy, and a very funny one: When a detective meets our trio in the first episode, she immediately pegs them as murder-show junkies, using language suitable for the show's TV-MA rating. The second episode features one of the most dispassionate memorial services you'll ever see. Short, as you might imagine, has one-liners and snappy comebacks galore. But Gomez, who at times seems to be channeling Madeline Kahn in "Clue," is no slouch in that department, either. (When Mabel tells Charles that she has seen his TV show: "I like the early '90s stuff. Sometimes you get to see Hammer pants.")

The first three episodes of "Only Murders in the Building" are streaming now on Hulu. Future episodes will drop on Tuesdays, which happily means 11 p.m. Monday here in the Central time zone.

• Sean Stangland is an assistant news editor who highly recommends Martin Short's 1987 sci-fi comedy "Inner space."

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