Charm is hard to do right on television and that is the quality comedy-thriller Only Murders in the Building (Disney+, Tuesday) possesses in abundance. It’s a just-the-right-side-of-twee triple hander in which Selena Gomez, Martin Short and Steve Martin play crime-obsessed podcasters lurching from one disaster to the next. Think Serial meets the Three Stooges, the chemistry between the leads fuelling a perpetual motion machine of peerless dramedy.
Season one was a surprise hit for Disney — and that rare series on the fledgling streamer that didn’t involve superheroes or characters related to Luke Skywalker retroactively ruining your childhood. And it ended on a cliffhanger, with Gomez’s true-crime fanatic Mabel surprised by a woman from a neighbouring apartment who had just been stabbed to death with a knitting needle.
This is the cue for a second helping of madcap murder mystery. Once again the setting is the sleuthing trio’s ritzy Manhattan apartment block: the sort of place that only exists in New Yorker short stories or Wes Anderson films. But the whodunnit is simply an excuse for the leads to bounce off one another. As wrinkly thesps Charles and Oliver, Martin and Short play ghastly parodies of their real-life selves: former stars of stage and screen whose bankability has dwindled with age.
They riff marvellously off Gomez’s Mabel, who has been accused of murder following the killing — by assailants unknown — of neighbour Bunny. All three are lifted by the police, yet rather than end their careers in true crime this merely brings more attention to their podcast, Only Murders in the Building — where they set out to solve crimes perpetrated in their swanky Arconia apartment block.
An additional delight is the series’ use of cameos. Sting portrayed an odd-ball version of himself in season one. This time around Amy Schumer turns up as “Amy Schumer” — a gimlet-eyed Hollywood operator determined to wrest the rights to the Only Murders podcast from the gang.
But she is outshone by Tina Fey, as rival podcaster Cinda Canning — who, as is the way with the true-crime genre, is determined to exploit Bunny’s death by making a wildly prejudiced podcast suggesting Mabel, Charles and Oliver were guilty. There are also smaller parts for Shirley MacLaine, as Bunny’s mother, and Cara Delevingne as a moody art gallery owner.
Screwball pacing and genuine comedic frisson come together to make Only Murders one of the best things on Disney+. It’s freewheeling, droll and has thoughtful things to say about friendship, getting old and the epidemic of true-crime podcasts. Bring back Sting and it would be perfect.