"Only Murders in the Building" makes me long to reconnect with our elders

The show reminds me of rich friendships that I had with gregarious elderly folks who encouraged me to live boldly

By Alison Stine

Staff Writer

Published September 26, 2021 11:00AM (EDT)

Steve Martin and Martin Short in "Only Murders in the Building" (Hulu)
Steve Martin and Martin Short in "Only Murders in the Building" (Hulu)

We moved across the country during the pandemic, which is not something I'd recommend. Making new friends as an adult is always hard, but during a deadly pandemic, the opportunities have been nonexistent. Add in the fact that I work from home as a writer, I have a child too young to be vaccinated, and I'm partially deaf (and rely on lipreading). I don't think I'll make a new friend in this city until the pandemic ends.

In isolation, I've thrown myself into work. I had a novel publish last fall, my second is releasing in October, and I'm deep into writing another. I focus on helping my son feel safe in his new school and neighborhood. And, like a lot of people during the pandemic, I watch TV. Seeking distraction, I was surprised to find real comfort in the Hulu series "Only Murders in the Building," along with a cast of main characters that feels more than familiar. 

"Only Murders in the Building" has been praised for its sharp writing, the return pairing of Steve Martin and Martin Short, the understated comic timing of Selena Gomez. But more than anything, it makes me miss friendships: specifically, my friendships with elders.

"Only Murders," co-created by Martin and John Hoffman, follows three neighbors in an upscale New York apartment building, The Arconia. Despite never really speaking to each other before, the neighbors discover they all obsessively follow the same true crime podcast, a kind of "Serial" knockoff. When a young, wealthy neighbor is murdered at The Arconia, Oliver (Short), an out-of-work theatre director, decides the three of them should start their own podcast and try to solve the crime. Charles (Martin), an actor who starred as a TV detective decades ago, will narrate the podcast, with research assistance by Mabel (Gomez), a secretive artist.

But that isn't really the story. It's certainly not the show. The show is two elderly men and a young woman hanging out — an unusual pairing, but one I'm not unfamiliar with. 

Growing up quiet because of my deafness, I was encouraged as a child to do community theatre. My parents hoped that performing might "cure" me of shyness. At nine years old, I got the very first part I auditioned for: Amaryllis in "The Music Man." Much of the cast were retirees, people who actually had time to commit to a nightly rehearsal schedule that lasted months.  

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The woman who played Mrs. Paroo — in the show, my piano teacher's mother — taught me to write down my blocking in the script, what shorthand to use, where to stand in the wings so I couldn't be seen by the house. She taught me words like "house" and "wings," "stage right" and "stage left." She told me stories of being a young woman in the theatre — warned me away from the fire curtain, the heavy red velvet drape with chains at the bottom. As a teenager, she had it come down on her onstage and broken her leg.

After the run of that show ended, I kept performing. From then on, until I left my hometown for college, I was always in a play, usually with a whole cast of older, amateur actors. I'm not sure I became less shy — I'm still an introvert — but I made so many new friends. And always, I heard such stories. Stories of the '60s and '70s, stories of guitar-playing and motorcycle crashes, escaped pet snakes, addictions and auditions, art and love. I felt I was raised by a dozen grandparents, who not only helped me learn to hit my mark and project my voice, but taught me about their day jobs, told me about their marriages and divorces, the children they did and didn't talk to, their hopes and regrets. I didn't realize how much I was missing the presence of older people's wisdom, stories, and humor in my life until "Only Murders."

In the show, the three neighbors get together after The Arconia is evacuated (the dead body having been discovered by police), and they all end up at the same restaurant across the street. They share a big booth with curved, leatherette sides. They listen to a podcast episode together, debate their theories over wine and food, sticking Charles with the check.

It's the kind of night that can't happen anymore, that hasn't happened since the pandemic: when you meet by chance and have a great time. When you linger over wine and hope you can see each other again.

And they do. The trio think the death is solved — as the police do, ruling it a suicide — then Mabel and Charles both alight upon the same idea in the middle of the night. They run into each other in the elevator. (They run into each other a lot.) 

"Only Murders" thrives on these coincidences. It's not a challenging or high-tension show. The trio do some questionable things, actually illegal, including breaking and entering — but their actions are presented with low stakes nonchalance. Crime isn't really the focus here. Companionship is. It's wish fulfilment but of the simplest kind: longing for connection, a sort of Nancy Meyers for friends.  

"Don't we all feel like orphans here at times," Oliver muses as he walks the autumnal New York streets alone. His purple coat flapping open and long scarf waving behind him like Isadora Duncan, he radiates deep loneliness, the kind of pain that swims in the eyes of a person who pretends to be fine.

Charles describes Oliver as just someone he passes in the elevator twice a month. He admits he knows no one at the apartment's memorial service for the murdered neighbor, and continually gets people's names wrong. He's so anxious he throws up.

"The old men are sad characters," Mabel's mom tells her after she brings them home for dinner. Mabel answers, "Sort of. They're also the first friends I've had in a really long time."

All three live alone, estranged from family. The show alternates POV, at least in the first few episodes, giving the major players each a turn – and all have their difficulties. Oliver has money problems. Charles struggles with anxiety severe enough it impacts his relationships. Mabel keeps her backstory and her connection to the murder victim a secret, and has not been able to get her designer career started.

The show has surreal moments — all three characters see ghosts, of sorts — and in one of its most lovely sequences, loneliness is slowed down, distilled. After leaving his son's house without getting to see his grandchildren, Oliver receives a text from Mabel. His face lights up at the interaction, and elated, he falls off a porch and bounces back up in slo-mo. Mabel imagines an engagement ring springing onto her finger. Charles makes a perfect single egg, rather than the omelette he cooks and throws away daily, the favorite of the almost step-daughter he lost. 

Mabel is like a surrogate granddaughter to Oliver and especially Charles, but the relationship is not cloying, nor does it descend into inappropriateness. Mabel corrects the older men when they say words like "secretary" and "slacks," and delivers the line, "old white guys are only afraid of colon cancer and societal change." But the show doesn't probe much deeper than that. She's Latina and the two men are white, a fact that is rarely addressed. In Mabel's POV episode, she relates a reccurring dream of stabbing a stranger who breaks into her apartment and stands over her bed. But that darkness has not been returned to, not yet.

"I want you to be less mean," Charles says to Mabel, after she makes a sarcastic quip. But they never say to Mabel that grooming, yellow flag: You're an old soul. Neither of the older men hit on her.

Maybe that's not realistic, but that's also what I remember from my friendships with elderly actors. Feeling safe. I remember their protectiveness and wisdom. Don't get married too soon, an older friend told me backstage during "A Christmas Carol." He was playing Marley. I was about to graduate high school. He who goes great places, goes them alone, another senior friend said. I remember he stopped, corrected himself. She

My elder friends threw me a graduation party. They sent letters when I went away to school. We wrote back and forth for a long time — real letters. And then stopped. I stopped. Maybe because I didn't follow their advice. I did marry too soon (and didn't get divorced soon enough). I stopped performing, tired of dealing with the young men who were creeps, of the theatre world which isn't very disability friendly or safe. I missed my friends. Performing wasn't the same for me without them.

But also, my life isn't the same without them.

Like Mabel, I lived in Manhattan after college and befriended an older neighbor. In his 90s, he wore a three-piece suit every day — usually, brown tweed — and every day, went out for a stroll with his cane. We would have long talks. I named my son for him.

I had been raised a state away from my grandparents, and maybe that is part of why I connected so strongly with senior actors in community theatre, missing that connection in my life. The grandmother I was closest to died when I was nine, having made the long trip to Ohio to see me as Amaryllis before she passed. She used to call me the "showgirl in the family."

But even though our time together was limited, I think I learned all I know of glamour from her: her bright red lipstick, even in the desolate cornfields of Indiana; how she wore matched polyester pantsuits, even just to sit on the back porch and shuck beans. From my grandfathers, both farmers as everyone in my family was, I learned foraging, caring for the earth, and patience. 

But I was the outcast in the family, the weird one who acted and wrote and sang, and the senior citizens I met in theatre knew what that was like. We didn't fit in, just like Charles, Oliver and Mabel. In a city of creatives, the older characters hold onto their lives of art desperately, riding ancient hits as long as they can.

And one of the things "Only Murders" gets very right is the gregariousness of elder creatives: Oliver's scarves and theatre posters, Charles slipping in dialogue from his old hit show. Maybe Mabel, just trying to break into the art world, is the showgirl in their assembled family with her throwback glamour and quirkiness. In her POV episode, her childhood unfolds like a storybook, something I would have found in my school library in the late 1980s, like "From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler." She spends her nights sketching (sometimes, on the walls of her apartment). And what would she use to stab the man of her nightmares? Her knitting needles.

It's interesting that this show, which brings the unlikely team of two elderly men and a millennial woman together, is airing now, mid-pandemic, when we're more disconnected and lonely than ever. 

I miss the letters I used to receive, often including newspaper clippings. I miss the stories inside. I miss living my life in a way that my elder friends would be proud of: bravely, boldly, without looking back, ready for adventure.

The adventures we can have now are mostly through screens: windows, laptops, TV. But I try to remember the lessons of those older friends who survived abuse, war, unemployment, in a bank failure, losing all the money they had saved to go to college, never getting to go to college at all — this is just a season in our lives.

In Victorian houses next to mine, two elderly men live. I wave to one man every morning. The other takes walks, no matter the weather. If our orange cat is sitting in the front window, he'll make a special trip across the street to wave hello. Our cat is part of his daily walk. Maybe one day I will be too. 

In the absence of social interaction, all we have are these small encounters, random connections that take on great meaning. But I also know: all it takes is one friend. When Charles admits that he knows no one, Mabel says simply: "You know me." 

As for "Only Murders," I find that I don't care who killed the murder victim. I don't care if the crime ever gets solved. I just want to see three friends, two of them elderly, hang out. I just want to see human connections, a simple friendship, formed because of art — and because of love, holding on.

By Alison Stine

Alison Stine is a former staff writer at Salon. She is the author of the novels "Trashlands" and "Road Out of Winter," winner of the 2021 Philip K. Dick Award. A recipient of an Individual Artist Fellowship from the National Endowment for the Arts (NEA), she has written for The New York Times, The Guardian, and others.

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