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Life Support

The Real Horror in Only Murders in the Building: The Cost of Living in New York

In the Hulu show, everyone is struggling to get by in a hostile city.

Patrick Harbron/Hulu
From left: Mabel (Selena Gomez), Oliver (Martin Short), and Charles (Steve Martin) are sleuths in the new season of “Only Murders in the Building.”

“Here’s a thing I don’t get: people who worry about living in a big city because of all the crime,” declares Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin), a washed-up TV detective whose residual checks allow him to live a comfortable life in a stately co-operative apartment building on the Upper West Side called the Arconia. There are too many eyes on you in a place like New York City for anything sinister to happen to you, Charles explains. Crime is for places like Oklahoma (Charles is an avid listener to All Is Not OK in Oklahoma, a true-crime podcast hosted by a Sarah Koenig–esque reporter named Cinda Canning, played by Tina Fey). No, in New York City, says Charles, “we’re packed in tight and stacked on top of each other, like those of us who live at the Arconia.”

Now in its third year, the Hulu hit Only Murders in the Building is up to three bodies, one per season, all found on the premises of the Arconia. In the first season, Charles and his team of resident-detectives, Oliver (Martin Short) and Mabel (Selena Gomez), investigated the murder of Tim Kono (Julian Cihi), a rude, reclusive young man who lived on the ninth floor. (“Tim was the reason we couldn’t use our fireplaces,” Charles learns at a co-op meeting. “I hated that guy!”) In the second season, the president of the co-op board is found dead. (“You lucky bitch,” Canning later tells Mabel. “It’s like these murders just fall in your lap.”) By that time, Charles, Oliver, and Mabel have become famous as the co-hosts of an entire podcast—also titled Only Murders in the Building—devoted to the mysterious demise of their neighbors.

How could murder befall this cozy, cheery building filled with comedic geniuses wearing fall sweaters that even Miranda Priestly would approve of? (Meryl Streep, as it happens, joined the cast for Season 3.) I also mean this practically: how? Every apartment in the Arconia faces the grand courtyard. In other words, there are more eyes and ears in this Upper West Side residential community than there are old copies of The New Yorker. In the opening minutes of the series premiere, we get our first clue to this mystery. Right after Charles finishes his monologue about the safety of a highly trafficked urban enclave, he hops into an elevator and presses the “close door” button as he sees his neighbor, theater director Oliver Putnam, making his way over with a heavy stack of packages. Oliver squeezes his way in, and Mabel hops on, too, but she is glued to her phone. There is a distinction here between seeing and looking out for your neighbors.

In her 1961 book, The Death and Life of Great American Cities, Jane Jacobs derided courtyards like the one at the Arconia as privatized versions of the sidewalk, and, as such, not really sidewalks at all. Courtyards represented, Jacobs believed, the opposite of the street, “where the public space is unequivocally public.” Hiding behind the cozy, seemingly uncontroversial facade of Only Murders in the Building is a show that shares Jacobs’s perspective in this regard. The show is a bold critique, particularly in its new season, of the sort of comfort that the residents of the Arconia enjoy in a city where so many are deeply, painfully uncomfortable.

The true-crime podcasting team of Charles, Mabel, and Oliver uses the murder mystery to model the act and ethics of noticing in a building where many residents have become inured to the pain of those around them, even those who live right next door. (When Kono is found dead, the tenants on his floor start fighting over who can buy his unit to conjoin with their own.) In this way, Only Murders in the Building is less an apologia for true-crime fandom, and more an acknowledgment of what that fandom expresses: a deep-seated desire to build community, to solve problems, and listen to one another, addictively.

On the night of their awkward elevator encounter, Charles, Oliver, and Mabel are each in their apartments listening to the latest episode of All Is Not OK in Oklahoma. The camera peers in their respective windows as they separately listen to the same sound: Cinda Canning’s voice.

When Ray Butler walked me into the woods behind his barn that night in Chickasha [dog barking], I wasn’t expecting to find anything related to the disappearance of his niece, Becky. I was thinking more about Ray’s unorthodox clothing choice for farm living. [insects chirping] But that all changed because of what was going on next to the riverbed, where Ray’s old Lab, Bo [barking], was digging at something in the dirt. [digging] Once he got his dug-up prize, Bo ran proudly to me with it dangling in his mouth. It took a moment to absorb what it was, but then it became all too clear. Bo had found …

Just then, a fire alarm sounds in the Arconia. Charles decamps to a restaurant nearby and tries to pick up the podcast where he left off. Oliver walks in and sees Charles has laid out a map of the last known whereabouts of Becky Butler, the missing girl in the show. They smile at each other like lovestruck teenagers. Soon, Mabel spots them chatting. “What the fuck is in Bo’s mouth?” she exclaims. “Becky’s panties!” they scream back at her in excitement.

Fandom leads to friendship, and when the three return to the Arconia to find police investigating the death of Tim Kono, found dead during the fire drill, they all instinctively leap into action. The police declare it a suicide, but Charles, Oliver, and Mabel suspect foul play. They saw him that morning on the elevator, carrying trash from one floor to another. “Why would he get on the elevator with that? There’s a chute on every floor,” Charles questions. It is the sort of detail that only a nosy neighbor would notice, setting the tone for the show’s uniquely residential take on sleuthdom. Oliver suggests they turn their new hobby into a podcast, and, while they are at it, maybe they could investigate a “mysterious death” that occurred in Central Park. “No, we’ve got to focus,” says Charles. “Only murders in the building.”

Oliver’s suggestion is born of necessity. This is no hobby; it is a hustle. Oliver is broke, and on the verge of getting evicted. Though he purchased his apartment over 30 years ago, when the Arconia was “affordable,” he tells Mabel, he is now behind on building maintenance fees. His career as a theater director has never recovered from the catastrophe that was Splash! The Musical (the pool malfunctioned, causing mermen to dive onto a hard wooden floor). His plan works, and by Season 3 Oliver has made a comeback. When the season opens, he has been tapped to make Death Rattle, a musical about a murder that occurs in a lighthouse. The suspects are the only three people who were in the room at the time a young mother was killed: her own triplet babies. “Angelic little triplets or triple threats?” Charles, whom Oliver casts as a constable, sings: “It’s time to give these teething, seething three the third degree!” The poster bears an obvious resemblance to that of Rosemary’s Baby, another New York City tale of housing horror.

The attention surrounding the podcast has also attracted a big star to the production. No, not Meryl Streep (who appears in the new season as Loretta, a struggling actress). The star is to be Ben Glenroy (Paul Rudd)—an actor known for his detective role in Girl Cop. It is a great act of stunt casting, but his Broadway debut is upended by another stunt; he is killed on opening night after a party at Oliver’s apartment (keeping this murder in the building). As Mabel starts investigating, Oliver panics that he might lose another cast member to jail: “The key here is to find a murderer that won’t cost me the Tony,” he begs her.

Perhaps because Ben was not a longtime resident of the Arconia, his death becomes less tied to the particulars of apartment life and more about the harrowing experience that is creating a career in the arts while living in New York City. Streep’s Loretta is a perpetually out-of-work actress who gets by as a professional gift wrapper. At first, Mabel suspects Kimber (Ashley Park), a young actress Ben was rumored to have dated, of poisoning him with one of the anti-aging serums she hawks on TikTok to supplement her income. Though Mabel is meant to be investigating Kimber, she sees herself in her. “You manage all this?” Mabel asks, surveying the amount of sellable product Kimber stores in her dressing room. “You know how it is. Being our age in New York,” Kimber replies. “You have to hustle if you want to make it here.”

Mabel never treated the podcast as a job, but she is realizing she might have to, especially what with Oliver and Charles distracted by Death Rattle. Cinda Canning tries to entice Mabel to join her podcast production company, but only as a solo act. Mabel refuses out of loyalty. What is she going to do to survive then? asks Cinda. Mabel, recalling Kimber, answers: “I might sell kombucha. Or open boxes on YouTube. You know, do a side hustle.” Canning, ostensibly a villain, turns to Mabel with a checkbook and says, “What I’m offering is structure. A paycheck.” The scene is meant to be an instance of the little guy refusing to sell out to the cynical big-money operation, but I found that difficult to parse at first, because, watching it play out, I found myself thinking: Why can’t this happen to me?

Though Only Murders in the Building has never been didactic, and the murders are never explicitly social in nature, the work of detection often leads our three heroes down a path of forensic sociology. As they investigate the people around them, Charles, Oliver, and Mabel learn just how incapable of sustaining life their environment has become. In the first season, we see the super’s son wrongfully accused of a crime by a wealthy resident and encounter an elderly woman who has no social world outside of the co-op meeting. In Season 3, the show turns its attention to working actors struggling to make ends meet in New York City. Indeed, a recurring theme in Only Murders in the Building is that a person does not have to wind up dead to have come dangerously close to not making it.

Yet at the same time, the show, and this season in particular, is a rousing defense of why art matters and why we cannot afford to lose the people who make it, certainly not to murder—but also, more broadly, not to the exploitative labor conditions that SAG and the WGA are currently striking against. At one point, Mabel confides to Charles that she is getting emotional about Ben’s death because the only way she and her mother could communicate during a turbulent time in their relationship was by watching Girl Cop. They watched the show at the same time, in separate rooms, but would laugh at the same lines at the same time. Art is an essential bridge, and, in its latest season, Only Murders in the Building has chosen to cheer on the very people who bring the show to life, whose art organizes us into fandoms today, and who knows what tomorrow.