Warning: The following article contains spoilers for the first season of the Hotstar series ‘Only Murders in the Building’
If you are hooked onto true crime series, documentaries on OTT platforms like Netflix, Amazon Prime Video and Hotstar, and feel like something lighter than Burari Deaths and The Ted Bundy Tapes, say no more. What’s better than Steve Martin, John Hoffman, Martin Short and Selena Gomez parodying the entire crime genre? Only Murders in the Building, which concluded its first season this Wednesday, is a consistently amusing satire of true crime podcasts and fanbase obsession, often worth watching for the dialogue alone.
The true crime craze in the streaming age has gone out of control in recent years, with fans clamouring for the next real-life murder mystery or the secrets behind an old one, and filmmakers, companies and content creators pulling all stops to meet that demand. As a result, I have always felt uncomfortable by much of the global true crime fanbase for a number of reasons, such as an insensitive obsession with seeking out murder cases, gore, or disappearances for the purpose of entertainment and unverified speculation.
Thankfully, comedian Steve Martin and writer-producer John Hoffman seemingly shared some of my sentiments and decided to lampoon many aspects of the genre and its fanbase, while appearing to be fans themselves with a healthy dose of references, a killer soundtrack composed by Siddharth Khosla and an unexpected guest role from a yesteryear popstar.
Martin and Hoffman’s new mystery-comedy series Only Murders in the Building has a fairly simple premise — three loners and true crime aficionados who live in the same building and take the same elevator daily decide to start their own podcast after an unpopular resident of their building is found dead under mysterious circumstances.
While the finale did not leave me completely satisfied and some elements were far too telegraphed and cliched, Hulu’s Only Murders is a breath of fresh air in a stinky pool of crime shows.
Problems with the true crime genre
Be it documentaries like Abducted in Plain Sight and Burari Deaths or podcasts like My Favourite Murder and Crime Junkie, the vast majority of the true crime genre today exhibits deep, fundamental flaws.
Any pretence of sensitivity towards victims, responsible crime reporting and seeking out the truth, and not drama, in all its possible nuances and complications, falls by the wayside in these shows and podcasts.
Some, such as novelist and stabbing survivor Emma Berquist, would go so far as to say that the genre is rotting our brains. I’m inclined to agree, because many of the ways in which true crime must-sees are promoted today remind me of the media coverage of the Noida double-murder of Aarushi Talwar and Hemraj Banjade in May 2008.Voyeuristic, macabre obsessions, and drama over investigation.
“Crime stories are a fundamentally conservative way of looking at the world…the reactionary basis of true crime is how you end up with ostensibly liberal podcast hosts defending the death penalty and arguing against double jeopardy protections,” Berquist wrote in an op-ed for Gawker, as she described the media fallout after her own traumatic experience as well as other recent cases.
“I would sooner get stabbed again than have someone make a podcast about me,” she wrote.
While her overall argument is very US-centric, it rings true when applied to true crime followers and content creators worldwide.
‘Only Murders’ as antidote to craze
A particularly amusing running gag in Only Murders is when one of the protagonists, cash-strapped theatre director Oliver Putnam (played masterfully by Martin Short) repeatedly takes out a tacky boom mic whenever his new friends, potential witnesses or suspects say anything remotely interesting, and asks them to repeat their remarks to create a soundbite for the podcast.
Putnam’s requests are also often accompanied with unsolicited advice and ‘notes’ to his fellow co-hosts Charlie (Steve Martin) and Mabel (Selena Gomez) during the recording sessions, a clear sign that the success of the podcast is more important than seeking justice for Tim Kono, the murdered man.
“You are scoring a murder mystery, not DJing a hobbit’s wedding,” Putnam’s retort to Charlie in one of the early episodes typifies the level of banter and chemistry that remains throughout the 10 episodes.
Putnam is similarly acerbic towards the podcast fans at first, openly roasting them and questioning whether they lead actual lives. However, the writers also tip their hat to the dedication and research conducted by some fans as Putnam ends up enlisting his fictional podcast followers to aid in solving the Kono murder case.
Scratching the whodunnit itch
Having an affinity for murder mysteries and unsolved cases is not inherently unhealthy, especially in fiction, as the likes of Arthur Conan Doyle, Agatha Christie and Michael Connelly built long, prolific careers on their ability to write compelling stories in this genre.
But when it comes to true crime narratives, there exists a fine line between sensitive coverage and tabloid-style bloodthirsty commentary. That far too much content either skirts this line clumsily or goes full-blown into the tabloid direction is exactly why Martin and Hoffman’s Only Murders is a much-needed counter-punch.
Leaving aside the satirical elements, the comedic dialogue and the references, the verdict on whether Only Murders is actually good ultimately rests on the main plot of the murder case itself. Unfortunately, this is where the show has most of its missteps. The final resolution and culprit’s motive are rushed and underdeveloped, with some of the loose ends serving as a cliff-hanger finale setting up the second season.
In other words, do not go into this show expecting a core plot on par with True Detective or Bosch, and it is not as hilarious as a Knives Out or a Psych either.
But Only Murders is a cleverly crafted send-up of the true crime genre and scratched the whodunnit itch for me while I wait for the next Psych film. If nothing else, watch it for Sting being initially interrogated as the prime suspect.
Views are personal.
Why news media is in crisis & How you can fix it
India needs free, fair, non-hyphenated and questioning journalism even more as it faces multiple crises.
But the news media is in a crisis of its own. There have been brutal layoffs and pay-cuts. The best of journalism is shrinking, yielding to crude prime-time spectacle.
ThePrint has the finest young reporters, columnists and editors working for it. Sustaining journalism of this quality needs smart and thinking people like you to pay for it. Whether you live in India or overseas, you can do it here.