September 30, 2021

Television

Murder they spoke: ‘Only Murders in the Building’

By Craig Mathieson
Still from ‘Only Murders in the Building’ showing Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez. © Craig Blankenhorn

From left: Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez in ‘Only Murders in the Building’. © Craig Blankenhorn

A droll comic mystery about budding true crime podcasters leads September’s streaming highlights

It starts with the title card. In an era of bold typography, Only Murders in the Building (Disney+) sports an elegant throwback font complete with serif hints. It looks like a magazine masthead from the 1950s, and that’s emblematic of a show where predictable elements come with a bespoke twist. As a satire, this delightful comic mystery about budding true crime podcasters is droll, and as an investigatory thriller it is simple, but each episode has grace notes, sombre clarifications, and technical innovations (one half hour is told mostly without sound from the perspective of a deaf character) that redefine the series without ever weighing it down with the signifiers of prestige drama. It is a funny, fleeting creation that proves to be deeply appealing.

The setting is the fictional Arconia building in New York City’s Upper West Side, where former television star Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin), washed up Broadway director Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) and budding young interior designer Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) all ignore each other in the lifts. But when they collectively realise they’re devotees of true crime podcasts (particularly those made by Tina Fey’s Cinda Canning) and a neighbour dies under circumstances they believe are suspicious, the trio decide to chart their investigation with an audio series. As detectives they are definitely bumbling, and they are pushy as podcasters, but each of the central trio is also a mystery in themselves, with past failings that come to light with bittersweet brevity.

While the generation gap between Mabel the millennial and the two baby boomers allows for some choice commentary (“I guess old white guys are only scared of colon cancer and societal change,” she tells Charles and Oliver), the narrative celebrates inter-generational friendship. You could make a decent show solely out of Short’s egotist blithely insulting Martin’s thespian, but there’s a genuine affection for the characters and their prospects that slowly but surely starts to resonate beyond the plot twists. The show’s creators, Martin and writer John Hoffman, have conjured up a deceptive hybrid where the real stakes are ultimately companionship and the belief that you don’t have to be defined by previous mistakes. The inciting incident for Only Murders in the Building may be a death, but the show believes that there’s much to live for.

It’s not hard to see the contemporary themes at the heart of Foundation (Apple TV+), the extravagantly budgeted adaptation of Isaac Asimov’s canonised series of science-fiction novels. Set in an intergalactic future, it charts a scientist, Hari Seldon (Jared Harris), trying to prepare a galactic empire for the collapse his work says is inevitable. As with climate change, Seldon and his followers (who are soon exiled to a distant planet) are hoping to mitigate the damage, reducing the coming Dark Age from 30,000 years to just 1000. The scale is epic – the show’s creator, David S. Goyer, anticipates eight seasons to tell the story – and the source material episodic, which makes this first season knotty but not always cohesive. Parallel storylines at Imperial Court and on frontier world, plus flashbacks, move at different speeds, making it a hard sell for the casual viewer. But in a time when audiences give series a single episode to impress, Foundation is playing the long game just likes its protagonists – the entire first season feels like a vast introduction.

On the Verge (Netflix) has a familiar format: four forty-something female friends in present-day Los Angeles are each trying to navigate a tangle of careers, relationships and children. What gives the show’s first season a piquant point of difference is creator Julie Delpy, the French actor turned filmmaker. She is an outsider to both Los Angeles and the American comic-drama, so her observations of the central quartet – Anne (Elisabeth Shue), Ell (Alexia Landeau), Yasmin (Sarah Jones) and Justine (Delpy) – are often unadorned and sometimes critical, while California’s mores are viewed with scepticism. There are still paeans to solidarity and sentimental tendencies, including an episode that culminates in the four bonding at dusk on Venice Beach, but there’s also an edge to the plotting that isn’t afraid of unpleasant outcomes. A case is point is Justine’s husband, Martin (Mathieu Demy), a petulant, persistently critical partner who is more despicable than any crime-drama villain.

In brief: British drama is having an audience-friendly renaissance, with taut thrillers driven by non-stop plot acceleration and wildly effective cliffhangers. They don’t always hold together with hindsight, but the likes of Line of Duty and Bodyguard (both Netflix) have a breathless momentum. The latest example is Vigil (Binge), a claustrophobic procedural following a police detective (Suranne Jones) conducting a murder investigation on an active Royal Navy nuclear submarine. Iggy & Ace continues SBS On Demand’s commitment to original Australian micro-series: this acerbic black comedy about twenty-something addiction and mutual dependency runs over six 10-minute episodes. September’s unlikely streaming success is Squid Game (Netflix), a gory South Korean horror-thriller about the impoverished signing up for a competition where they quickly learn that the losers die. It’s a nightmarish scenario, leavened with the bonds between the surviving competitors, but as a critique on inequality it’s nothing but timely.

Craig Mathieson

Craig Mathieson is a television critic for The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, an author, and the creator of the Binge-r streaming newsletter.

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