In August of 2021, the COVID-19 pandemic was in its 18th month. It had shaped a presidential election, transformed our vocabulary and social lives, and taken more than 600,000 lives. The Delta variant was starting to surge, and for large swaths of the country, it was clear normalcy wouldn’t return any time soon.
That same month, a new television series premiered on Hulu with an unlikely trio of stars: Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, and Martin Short—a millennial pop icon and two comedy legends from her grandfather’s generation. The show was Only Murders in the Building, a whodunit about three New York City neighbors making a true-crime podcast.
The premise was inevitable. True crime consistently draws huge podcast audiences, so it was just a matter of time before podcasters came to TV, much like TV producers (The Larry Sanders Show, 30 Rock) and journalists (The Mary Tyler Moore Show, Murphy Brown, The Newsroom) did in an earlier era. What wasn’t inevitable, however, was Only Murders’ comedy and pathos—as well as its intense and timely interest in what it looks like to stubbornly choose community with flawed and frustrating people in an isolating age.
Only Murders’ primary hook is the punchy, insult-driven dialogue between Martin and Short. It echoes the caustic manner of Don Rickles, as if every conversation is happening at a roast or a Vegas dinner theater, and it manages to both shock and charm. Martin’s Charles-Haden Savage and Short’s Oliver Putnam relentlessly mock each other’s failed careers and relationships, old age and physical appearance, and bad taste in clothes and art.
This comes naturally to longtime comedy partners Martin and Short, but a delightful surprise is Gomez’s seamless entry into the act. As Mabel Mora, a fellow resident of the Arconia apartment building, her melancholic energy is a foil to Charles’s neurosis and Oliver’s manic excitement, but her quips are equally ruthless.
“Is it cancer?” Mabel asks when Charles gets a nervous nosebleed early in the first season. “I just need to know how invested I should get in you. You don’t adopt a 20-year-old dog.”
It’s a startlingly funny line—and it was especially startling in 2021, when death loomed so large in our imaginations and in our headlines. More timid artists would have tempered jokes like this or altogether nixed a mid-pandemic farce about violent death. But death isn’t really the point of Only Murders in the Building. The heart of the show is not the murders—it’s the building, or, more precisely, the community that forms within it.
This is why, though ostensibly a show about a true-crime podcast, Only Murders hardly pays attention to the conventions of the genre. The addictive power of true crime is in the minutiae: phone records, unexplained or discarded bits of evidence, leads the police ignored, tiny discrepancies in testimony.
But the Only Murders team are barely competent as sleuths. The murders are a MacGuffin—a plot device that brings them together, yet has little significance in its own right. The real mystery that Charles, Oliver, and Mabel are trying to solve is their loneliness.
They are hardly exceptional in this. Friendship has been in decline in America since the 1990s. The COVID-19 pandemic accelerated that decline, with nearly 1 in 10 Americans reporting losing touch with most of their friends between 2020 and 2021. The US surgeon general recently declared loneliness an epidemic, linking it to cardiovascular disease, depression, anxiety, dementia, and a host of other diseases.
Only Murders wasn’t conceived as a response to the pandemic or its containment policies. (Hulu announced the production in January of 2020.) But its timing was perfect. Viewers could identify with Charles’s solitary ritual of making an omelet for no one, or police detective Donna Williams’s belief that we’re “born alone, spend most of our time alone, then we all go out alone.”
After months of isolation, many were questioning what value was to be found in gathering again at churches, schools, and workplaces. Only Murders offered an adamant answer: Community is necessary. Loneliness can be escaped. Even grief and tragedy can be a catalyst to connection.
However unintentionally, that echoes a foundational Christian understanding of community. Unlikely friendship was knit into the DNA of the church from the beginning, when zealots, tax collectors, fishermen, and sinners of all kinds encountered grace and began following Jesus together (Matt. 10:2– 4). As the gospel spread, Christian communities became more culturally disparate, and much of the pastoral counsel in the Epistles was written to teach this strange new people how to be generous and hospitable to one another (e.g. Eph. 2:11–22).
Today the church’s biggest obstacle to that kind of community is often self-imposed. First, leaders act like marketers, dividing congregations into demographic groups and programming ministry to meet specific needs. Then, in the interest of highlighting “diversity,” we attempt to manufacture experiences that bring those groups together, expecting various members to fulfill stereotypical roles according to race, age, or gender.
I wonder if we couldn’t take a cue from Only Murders on this front. In the fifth episode of the current season, when Mabel is asked to characterize her relationship with Oliver and Charles, she calls them her “best buds.” They talk about “murder, mostly,” she adds, but also “how to connect to Bluetooth. We talk about that a lot.”
It’s an artful understatement. Friendship defies description. It also resists force. Those who want to fight the loneliness epidemic from inside the church could learn a lot from a relationship built on murder and Bluetooth, a pairing of serious purpose and the mundanities of life together. To make another understatement, that pair is just what can unite us at church.
In the first two seasons of Only Murders, Charles, Oliver, and Mabel tested the possibility of friendship under tenuous circumstances, and we cheered for them as they succeeded. As backstories surfaced, our heroes were exposed as liars, each hiding old sins and shame, and still, the friendship proved durable. They forgave one another, over and over, and carried each other’s burdens (Gal. 6:2).
Season 3, which just passed its halfway point on Tuesday, still has a murder plot. But the most important storylines are those taking the three main characters in separate directions. Mabel is being forced to move out of the building and is being recruited to a new true-crime gig. Charles and Oliver are tempted by romance and career, respectively, to turn away from the trio’s friendship (and their podcast). The true menace of this season is less the new murderer, yet to be revealed, and more the already looming loss of community.
After two seasons of vicarious joy in the friendship between the three, Only Murders’ threat to its characters’ life together is more frightening than any of its previous scares. It feels like a horror movie, and one of the classic rules of slasher flicks—recited by Mabel and fellow Arconia neighbor Howard in this week’s episode—is the very thing that could save our heroes: “We have to stick together.”
Mike Cosper is the director of CT Media.