The secret to a whodunnit in the modern age is all in the editing. There are always clues and titbits – some real, some red herrings – that will keep viewers guessing week-on-week about what exactly is going on. No show has encapsulated this better than the comedy-mystery hit Only Murders in the Building, which debuts its second season today.
The show stars the powerhouse trio of Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selina Gomez who all play residents of New York’s Arconia Building. The three are united in creating a real-time true crime podcast series when somebody is found dead. They try to get to the bottom of who is behind the mysterious crime, whilst trying to clear their own names in the process.
Minor spoilers for Only Murders in the Building season one below.
Only Murders brings the film noir genre to today’s audience, framing how modern media can turn anyone into a detective. The stylistic choices within the editing process ensure that the viewers also have the option to take on the same eagle-eyed perspective adopted by the main characters.
Series co-creator John Hoffman discussed with E! how the artistic opening credits of the series includes teasers, hooking viewers in the first few minutes. As the haunting (but catchy) theme plays, we get a glimpse into the windows of our protagonists – Charles, Oliver and Mabel – and then see more residents (and potential suspects) as they flash throughout the building before you can blink.
Every episode, the credits change slightly to include a new Easter Egg referenced in the main story. The credits alone sparked Reddit threads breaking down each shot – something I expect will be replicated this season as well.
This idea of peeping is also a theme throughout the editing. Chris Teague, director of photography, references how the showrunners used Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window as a reference point for the stylistic choices, as it has “a lot of thematic similarity with this show: people watching each other, peeking into other people’s lives, and thinking they see something that may or may not be there.”
The main trio often split off for their own adventures both in their home and outside in New York, but the editing manages to convey to audiences how two separate storylines ultimately weave together. This is done by a technique called intercutting.
Editors of the series JoAnne Yarrow and Matthew Barbato discuss this further: “…we’re building to a climactic reveal and there are two sets of characters that are doing different things in completely different locations, but by blending the audio and leading you back and forth to each of the character’s storylines, you’re able to build a sense in the audience that they’re supposed to be paying attention to how these beats are working together”.
This style of editing also plays into the humour of the series – the opening of season two intercuts dialogue from all three leads during a police interrogation. Whilst the story of the scene is quite intense, the conversations will leave viewers in stiches – something that editor Julie Monroe referenced as being pivotal in a Hollywood Reporter roundtable: “[it is] always keeping that sort of pressure cooker of the apartment and all of its inhabitants, and still have the comedy of the story”.
One standout episode from the first season is ‘The Boy from 6B’. This is told from the point of view of a deaf character, creating an almost dialogue-free episode with an underlying soundscape. The focus was through what the character can see, so there is a lot of first-person point of view shots, including looking through peepholes – once again a call back to that idea of spying on your neighbours.
The second season continues with the same snappy shots seen in the first instalment that keep you guessing. One example is when a series of Instagram messages pop up on the screen, layered over Mabel’s face. Whilst the scene homes in on one message, I was tempted to pause and go frame-by-frame to see if anything else of note was teased in the background.
There are of course many other factors that go into layering the detail of this show – the set design, the dialogue, the plot beats and the masterful performances – but Only Murders in the Building’s editing is bold, artistic and precise. Being a Disney-owned property, its quality is particularly noticeable amongst a sea of Marvel and Star Wars shows which often have the same cookie-cutter formula.
If you are tuning in to the next season, make sure to keep your eyes peeled on how a scene is frame, layered or cut. You could find the one clue that everyone else has missed.
US viewers can watch Only Murders in the Building on Hulu, whilst UK viewers can tune in via Star on Disney+. New episodes drop on Tuesdays.
What I’m watching this week
The BBC has some seriously underrated comedy shows, and one of the best short sketch series is Ellie and Natasia. One part of this comedy duo is best known for her work on What We Do in the Shadows and Stath Lets Flats.
The cultural references within it are spot on – the Saturday Kitchen sketch is a true gem, as is the ongoing series of Donna and her terrified cousin who are constantly trying to market their internet businesses with a camera that looks like it is from the early 2000’s. Plus, at 15 minutes long per episode, they are great for when you are short on time.