John Hoffman steers the twists and turns of Only Murders in the Building

October 25, 2021 Danny Munso

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Showrunner John Hoffman turns an idea from the great Steve Martin into a comedic murder mystery and the surprise hit of the year.
By Danny Munso

Spoiler Warning: This article discusses the ending of the season, so proceed with caution

John Hoffman’s dream project started with an unexpected email. From producers Dan Fogelman and Jess Rosenthal, it came with a two-line premise for a TV show and the names of the two attached actors: Steve Martin and Martin Short. Like a lot of people, Hoffman grew up revering both Martin and Short, and now here was an email asking him to possibly be a part of their next project. His response was a no-brainer. “I immediately lit up,” he says. “I couldn’t believe my luck.” The premise is an original idea of Martin’s that centered on three strangers who share a love of true-crime podcasts and decide to team up to solve a recent death in the old New York apartment building they all occupy. Not much was figured out beyond that, so Fogelman and Rosenthal—who produce NBC’s This Is Us—reached out to Hoffman, a writer and producer on Netflix hit Grace and Frankie, to see if he had ideas for how the premise could be fleshed out into a full series. “Sometimes when you’re a writer and you hear an idea, nothing happens. That’s concerning. But what happened here was a flood of ideas came, and that’s always a good time.” Rather than respond to the email, Hoffman called Rosenthal directly from a parking lot in L.A. and began pitching a wealth of ideas over the phone. Two days later he was in New York sitting down with Martin to walk him through those ideas, and the work on Only Murders in the Building began in earnest.

Hoffman ended up being a perfect fit for the material. Not only had his past writing often blended the comedic and dramatic tone on which this show would lean, but he’d recently gone through a dark mystery of his own after hearing an old friend from high school that he’d lost touch with years before had committed a murder-suicide. Hoffman couldn’t imagine it would be the same person so he began looking into the details, and the work done by him and others got the case a second look. As it turned out, Hoffman’s friend was the one who was murdered. That real-life story and Hoffman’s experience researching the case found its way into his eventual pitch for what the pilot episode of this series should be: that Charles (Martin), Oliver (Short) and Mabel (Selena Gomez) would investigate the suicide of Tim Kono (Julian Cihi), a fellow resident in their building, the Arconia. They soon agree that Tim was in fact murdered and decide to chronicle their investigation in a podcast, though Mabel chooses not to tell Charles and Oliver a major secret: She and Tim were childhood friends.

After penning a detailed outline for the pilot, Hoffman and Martin met up again in New York to write the final pilot script, the first one Martin has been credited on since 2009’s The Pink Panther 2. They also hammered out a rough plan for the season’s arc before their pitch meeting with Hulu, and it was of course greenlighted. With that, the nuts and bolts of the show kicked into gear. “The big work was done in the writers’ room, and it was a very exciting time,” Hoffman says. “We kept asking ourselves how we could tell this story in a more unique way than people might expect?” That led to the touches that separate Only Murders in the Building from standard comedies. Wanting to push the limits, the writers added theatrical, if a bit surreal, flourishes to a lot of the episodes. In the season’s third episode, Oliver is trying to narrow down the list of suspects, and his thought process is depicted as a Broadway audition where Oliver, a former theatrical director, goes through the case for each of them as if trying to match them to the right part. The next episode features Charles randomly seeing costumed versions of Bugs Bunny and Porky Pig around the building. We come to find later that these characters were present at his last breakup and they have haunted him ever since.

Unlike other series he has worked on, Hoffman says this series demanded that nearly every plot point be cemented in one episode before work on the following scripts could begin, as opposed to the sometimes fluid nature of writers’ rooms, where scripts are penned as the season is being plotted. “That’s the main thing the mystery writing process has taught me,” he says. “It’s very painstaking. It became very clear early on that we weren’t going to be successful at writing this unless we figured out the very end and worked our way backwards. We didn’t get started on the scripts until very late in the development process because we had to know everything all the way to episode 10 before we could do that.” A lot of this deliberate plotting was due to the layout of not one but two murders. In addition to Tim’s, we also learn more about a death from 10 years earlier, when Mabel and Tim’s friend Zoe (Olivia Reis) was pushed over a ledge at the Arconia. Tim blamed it on Zoe’s boyfriend Oscar (Aaron Dominguez), but Mabel knew that to be untrue and that Tim was lying for some unknown reason. “We found that to write the show, all of us had to have an encyclopedic version of both stories. Both had to be clear in our minds in order to hide the truth from the audience long enough for them to be surprised.” Hoffman admits the solutions to each mystery got jumbled as conversations in the room continued. “What ended up happening was we all got very confused. We threw too much at it, and in many ways the hard work was tearing both back to the very minimum. We wanted it to be complex but for people to understand it.”

Though it seems like the two murders may be tied together, when we learn in the season’s seventh episode—“The Boy from 6B”— that is not the case, it’s makes for one of the most inventive playouts in recent memory. As viewers know, the episode is told mainly from the point of view of Theo Dimas (James Caverly), the son of Teddy (Nathan Lane) who is Oliver’s old producer and the main sponsor of their podcast. We come to find that it was he who accidentally pushed Zoe over the ledge when the two were in a fight. Tim was a witness, but Teddy threatened to kill him and Mabel if Tim ever revealed the truth. And Theo is deaf, so the majority of the episode is 30 minutes with zero dialogue. Hoffman notes the silent aspect was always planned for Theo’s scenes, but in the editing room he and Martin decided to push things even further and cut dialogue from scenes in the episode where Theo didn’t appear, namely the ones between Charles and his new girlfriend Jan (Amy Ryan). The resulting episode, which puts a big piece of the Only Murders puzzle into place and closes the book on Zoe’s murder, received rave reviews from critics for putting such an imaginative piece of TV on the air.

The show’s finale reveals that Tim’s killer is none other than Jan (Amy Ryan), Charles’ new girlfriend and, as it turns out, Tim’s ex. Unlike some murder series, Hoffman and his writers did not tip their hand too early in terms of Jan’s involvement, making the reveal a true surprise to most. Boldly, the biggest clue to Jan’s guilt is planted very early on, when Oliver and Mabel discover what they think is a box of Tim’s sex toys. What Oliver bandies about is actually a bassoon cleaner, an instrument Jan plays for a living. “That was my biggest nightmare,” Hoffman confesses. “All I kept thinking was that on Twitter someone would know what a bassoon cleaner looks like. We decided to plant it in episode two and hope to God no one points it out for seven episodes. I think a Reddit board may have caught onto it a few days before episode nine aired, but thankfully that was it.”

Hoffman and co-writer Rachel Burger had a difficult balance to strike in that final episode. Jan’s reveal creates true peril for our three leads, and the audience needs to feel they are in legitimate danger. On the other hand, this is a comedy and the writers chose some of their more outlandish physical bits for the episode. After Jan poisons him, Charles loses the use of his legs, leading to a sequence where Martin has to leave the apartment and find a way to use the elevator without his lower body. At one point, Oliver even puts Charles in a stroller, heightening the absurdity, yet the danger of Jan is ever present, resulting in a juxtaposition of tones that is unique to this show. “That was the thrill of writing the show, truthfully,” Hoffman says. “To see if we can pull that off. We want to care about these people and create a sense of urgency and stakes but have it feel grounded in a certain reality. And yet absurd things happen in reality. When you have these three marvelous actors who can do so much but keep it grounded, that’s a thrill as a writer.” Hoffman took inspiration from a show he binged during the pandemic — The Mary Tyler Moore Show. “There you have people you care about in certain absurdist situations, but it’s still grounded with a humanist viewpoint.”

The boldest storytelling choice Hoffman may have made can be seen in the opening seconds of the show. The very first scene in episode one has Charles and Oliver racing into Mabel’s apartment, only to find her holding a knitting needle over a dead body with blood all over her. “It’s not what you think,” she says. From there the episode cuts to a few weeks prior, where the show begins in earnest. That scene doubles as one of the closing ones in the season finale and launches into the events that will make up season two, which was given the go-ahead by Hulu in September, smack at the halfway point of the first season. The idea to open with that scene has been there from Hoffman’s first pitch to the streamer. “I know it’s becoming a bit of a trope to jump further down the line and show something exciting before building up to it,” he says. “But in this case and with this show specifically, it was all about subverting expectations. If you open the show with Steve Martin and Martin Short in the middle of this action sequence with them running down the stairs, it immediately doesn’t feel like the drawing-room comedy you might expect the show to be.”

As for that second season, Hoffman had rough ideas swimming in his head during the making of the first, but he couldn’t map out anything detailed until the writers answered a key question: Who would be the killer? Though the finale reveals the victim Mabel is kneeling over—that would be unlikable tenant board leader Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell)—there are no hints at her killer, though it is our trio of heroes who are arrested at the episode’s conclusion. “I always like to go into the writers’ room with a three-act structure of the season and a general picture of what we’re aiming toward. I was a bit panicked because I did not get the killer clear in my mind until shortly after we wrapped season one, so that came a little later than I would have liked.” As Backstory is speaking with Hoffman, there’s only a month to go before shooting on season two commenced. So that must mean the writing process on that is close to finished? To which Hoffman says with a smile, “Wouldn’t that be nice?”

Only Murders in the Building is streaming on Hulu now

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