(CNN)“Only Murders in the Building” might have been co-created by Steve Martin, but it has the feel of Woody Allen’s lighter mysteries, drenched in New York-centric touches and characters as eccentric as the décor in their high-rise apartments. Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez play the unlikely sleuths, in a Hulu series that’s good fun as long as you don’t over-think it.
Martin’s Charles is a former TV star — his history with a crime procedural comes in handy — who has essentially become a recluse. He grudgingly catches up with Short’s Oliver, a cash-strapped theater director, when the two are forced to evacuate their building because one of the residents has been murdered.
Before long, they’ve teamed with a mysterious and much younger neighbor, Mabel (Gomez), hatching elaborate plans to not only crack the case but to turn their findings into a true-crime podcast.
Co-created by Martin and John Hoffman, who also produced along with a team that includes “This is Us'” Dan Fogelman, the series not surprisingly revels in inside-showbiz humor, drawing on Charles and Oliver’s self-obsessed backgrounds. But it also reveals an astute ear for true crime, exploiting the notion that Manhattanites go about their business without knowing much about who’s down the hall, much less in the rest of the building.
The big names don’t end with the central trio, attracting cameos by the likes of Tina Fey, Nathan Lane and Amy Ryan, as well as a certain rock star who happens to be one of the building’s understandably wary occupants.
As with movies like Allen’s “Manhattan Murder Mystery” (one of the more obvious comparisons, though there are plenty), the notion that it takes a life-and-death situation to get the blood pumping is clearly evident here. Despite his grumbling, Charles notes that pursuing the investigation is “the most alive that I’ve felt in a decade.”
Martin and Short’s long affiliation includes “Father of the Bride” and “The Three Amigos,” but Gomez (ostensibly sitting in for Chevy Chase) proves well matched with this veteran pair, as Mabel harbors her own secrets — starting with how a young woman can afford to live alone in this building — that play into the story.
Hulu didn’t make the final episodes available, so it remains to be seen whether the payoff enhances the journey; still, the underlying mystery is almost beside the point, even if the victim’s name, “Tim Kono,” gets repeated so many times that it would make for a pretty good drinking game.
As a writer, Martin has always exhibited eclectic tastes, and “Only Murders” reflects a playful extension of those sensibilities. In a nice dichotomy, it’s a throwback to an earlier kind of entertainment, but all about podcasts and running on a new-fangled streaming service. In short, just the place these days that you’d expect to find a wild and crazy guy and his pals.
“Only Murders in the Building” premieres Aug. 31 on Hulu.