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Only Murders in the Building mirrors our culture of surveillance and 'arm-chair detectives'

By Adedoyin "Ade" Adeniji

There are plenty of reasons to wonder why Americans are so obsessed with true crime. Theories about this obsession abound on the internet. Some people suggest it's due to a fear of our own safety and desire to protect ourselves. Others posit true crime is simply entertaining—a guilty pleasure of some sort. Whatever the case may be, Hulu's Only Murders in the Building, which took home three Emmys this year in non-major categories, attempts to portray this obsession in a light-hearted comedy.

At the start of the series, we meet Charles (Steve Martin), Oliver (Martin Short) and Mabel (Selena Gomez), residents of Upper East Side's Arconia, an unlikely trio that bond over their shared true crime fixation. The night a fellow resident, Tim Kono, is murdered, they decide to make their own true-crime podcast solving the mystery of their neighbor's death. We spend season one following the trio across New York as they investigate Kono's murder. 

Only Murders in the Building features all that makes a great TV show—complex characters and outstanding storytelling. Yet, the most insidious message of the show is masked behind the comedic brilliance of the performances by Gomez, Martin, and Short—an obsession with true crime makes us, citizens, arm-chair cops eager to figure out who-dun-it, violating boundaries and ethical lines, endangering ourselves and others, and confirming biases. 

Although the true-crime genre has existed for decades, the industry took a new turn in 2014 with the boom of social media and podcasting. Audio shows like Serial, Criminal, and more transformed the crime media industry. Associate Professor of English, Pooja Rangan and film director Brett Story succinctly capture this change in their essay, Four Propositions on True Crime and Abolition. "The true crime of previous eras—the Victorian-era 'penny dreadful,' the tabloid, the dystopian crime novel—spoke to audiences in the titillating language of perverse criminality and intrepid police work. Today's true crime titillates with the promise of justice," they write. 

Only Murders in the Building perfectly captures how today's podcasters struggle to veer away from crime media's exploitative roots. We see scenes of the more sullen Mabel and Charles attempting to correct Oliver's excitement at getting "good content" for their podcast despite the subject matter being a horrific murder case. However, try as they may to reign Oliver in, intentions notwithstanding, crime media is still a product of a capitalistic penal system that exists for profit.

Associate Professor of Law at the University of Denver, Lindsey Webb explains this phenomenon. "The current upsurge in interest in true crime extends beyond media consumption," Webb says in her research paper, True Crime and Danger Narratives: Reflections on Stories of Violence, Race, and (In)justice. "Podcast hosts with large followings go on live tours, presenting tales of true crime in venues in the United States and around the globe, and offering merchandise featuring their logos and catchphrases, such as 'Be Weird, Be Rude, Stay Alive' shirts and 'Lock the F**king Door' doormats. A search for 'true crime' items on the Etsy website in April 2021 yields 21,263 results, including a cutting board featuring the face of Jeffrey Dahmer, who cannibalized some of the men and boys he killed in his apartment, along with the phrase 'start eating at home more.'" 

Webb argues that the true crime genre gives audiences "the 'strangely soothing' promise that horrific crimes can be explained, or at least solved, through competent investigation and forensic science." 

In this regard, the show succeeds at mirroring the commercialization of crime through the worrisome sponsorship from Dimas Delis, the overzealous podcast fans selling merch outside the Arconia and, in season two, new resident Amy Schumer's offer to turn the podcast into a streaming series. However, Only Murders in the Building, like many of the true crime podcasts it fashions itself after, fails to recognize that a pursuit of justice using flawed criminal methods legitimizes the criminal justice system. 

Just as in the real world with true crime podcasters, Charles, Mabel, and Oliver conduct their own investigations to discover the "truth" and "get justice." These investigations employ methods used by the police, including but not limited to surveillance, intimidation, data violations as well as other forensic science. And although research exists detailing how these methods are failing, the "good cop, bad cop" trope convinces eager justice sleuths that the reason justice has yet to be served in these cases is due to bad cops—as in the case of Detective Kreps in season two—and/or good cops not getting adequate support to follow through the investigation, like we see in season one when Detective Williams says the case cannot be reopened despite new compelling evidence. 

Webb argues that the true crime genre gives audiences "the 'strangely soothing' promise that horrific crimes can be explained, or at least solved, through competent investigation and forensic science." 

Regular citizens attempting to mirror police methods in investigations cannot be chalked up to pure happenstance. In Only Murders in the Building, we witness how crime-as-a-for-profit-machine permeates through all we consume starting from childhood. We witness Mabel's Murder Mystery Club as a child, Charles' past life acting as a cop in a TV show within the show, and Oliver's pick-out-the liar game. All of these experiences influence how the characters go about finding whodunit. 

While the effects of such conditioning may or may not be glaring within the show's portrayal of true crime's presence and impact, Webb further shares that "true crime consumers may therefore perceive themselves as being more educated about crime, criminal investigations, trials, and punishments than the average person, while simultaneously operating with misperceptions of those topics that can deeply impact their views on the purpose and power of our criminal system." 

For the 2022 74th annual Emmy Awards, pop justice is featuring critiquing this year's award-winning copaganda—and highlighting abolitionist storylines lurking in our favorite shows.

Believing ourselves to be experts at surveillance and discovering criminals has far-reaching consequences. Back in April, shortly after the start of the trial for actor Johnny Depp's defamation lawsuit against his ex wife Amber Heard, who accused him of abuse, multiple channels popped up on social media to document what happened in the courtroom. However, it fast became clear these bloggers and creator accounts were feeding into mainstream tropes of abuse and victimhood. Statements about Amber Heard's guilt due to details like leaked audio of Amber allegedly taunting Depp, the manner in which she cried on the stand during the trial, and assumptions about the presentation of her bruises in pictures taken shortly after a key incident in the case. These creators concluded Heard was guilty of lying against Depp, claiming she was the actual abuser—all assumptions based on "evidence" they had inspected and using their "knowledge" of what criminals do or do not do. 

Many of these accounts failed to consider how much of how we interact with so-called evidence is colored by our social conditioning. For instance, Heard's lawyers made a statement saying the actress would frequently cover bruises using a makeup kit. Although neither Heard nor her lawyers named the kit she had specifically used, creators and viewers determined independently that the kit in her lawyer's hands was a Milani Cosmetics kit, which hit the market in 2017, nearly a year after Amber filed for divorce. Milani Cosmetics even made a Tiktok implying Heard had lied about covering up bruises with their kit. These people failed to consider other scenarios that could explain the makeup kit situation such as the tendency for victims to mix up key details and it being customary for lawyers to use props in court. 

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Outside of celebrity cases, assumptions fueled by misconceptions of crime and justice affect Black and other marginalized groups the most. People become emboldened, in some cases legally, to make decisions using antiquated methods of fact finding that criminalize and harm the most vulnerable of us—as evidenced in the tragic murder of Ahmaud Arbery by civilians conducting what they believed to be "a citizen's arrest." As Raajan and Story continue in their esssy Four Propositions on True Crime and Abolition: "This recipe (of mapping generalized anxieties about the social order onto moral panics about "crime," and then conflating crime with Blackness, poverty, and urban strife) has proven endlessly recyclable."

Only Murders in the Building has now been renewed for a third season. Currently, interviews about the forthcoming season do not suggest that the show's prominent message — that true crime *can indeed be a bad thing* when it is exploitative — will change much. However, we as viewers, despite the allures of the genre, can't forget that true crime can only exist if crime exists, and crime as we currently define it does not adequately address harm in the way these stories want us to believe. In spite of Mabel, Charles, and Oliver's pursuit of justice, we witness more and more people getting hurt and dying just as happens in the real world. 

In episode 5 of the first season, Oscar, Mabel and Kono's friend who was wrongfully convicted of murder gives an impassioned speech about his lack of interest in the kind of justice the characters are seeking—the same "justice" that got him locked up. Outside of harm, the desire to capture "evidence" is ruining how we live and exist in community as humans. As writer James Creig writes in defense of being goofy without fear of being recorded and posted on social media without consent: "Surveillance culture has taken over our lives, encouraging us to mock, bully and snitch on others for content. Maybe we should learn to mind our business."


Only Murders in the Building and the façade of the Black cop

By Bria Massey

Only Murders in the Building attempts to depict the failures of policing while still offering a very reformist view of justice. Detective Donna Williams (Da'Vine Joy Randolph), the lead police officer in the show, a person with intersecting marginalized identities, is portrayed as the "good person" cop working against the system. No matter how likeable her character, the show is still copaganda. We must continuously reject the notion that "good cops" exist, or that having enough of them will upend antiblackness and the systemic issues that come from the occupation itself. 

As the lead officer on the case, Detective Williams rules Kono's death a suicide. She has an absolute disdain for the three protagonists, often referring to them as "true-crime numb-nuts" as she dismisses their efforts to find out what really happened to their neighbor. However, because of Williams' comedic timing and "no-BS" attitude, she's positioned perfectly as a likable character from the jump.

In episode six of season one, Protect and Serve, Williams learns about the "Only Murders in the Building" podcast. We see Williams more intimately in this episode, learning she and her partner are expecting a baby soon, and there's the tension of cold feet. After a heated conversation with her wife about some of the logistics of the case-possibly fueled by her parenting imposter syndrome, Williams states that she "doesn't mess up her cases" and doubles back to the police station to set things straight. Then, after reviewing all the documents, Williams realizes that she did not send Kono's phone or toxicology report to the proper channels for review. She later discloses to her wife that she indeed messed up, and is now unable to reopen the case herself. The following day, Williams "breaks the rules" and puts the suspect's phone in an envelope addressed to Mabel Mora so that Mabel and the other podcast members can use it to aid their investigation.     

Why didn't Williams think the system would work for her? Is there a possibility that accountability would look differently for her because she's Black and queer?

Detective William's actions, or lack thereof, help us reckon with the actual purpose and function of the police and whose interests they serve and protect. In real life, police actually exist to protect property, preserve inequality, and reinforce white supremacist ideology rooted in antiblackness. Therefore, it comes as no surprise when Williams cannot effectively or efficiently "protect and serve" her community under the institution of policing; it's simply not a part of the job description. Police are violent reactive measures that don't eradicate or address the root cause of social problems. Only Murders in the Building plays into the idea that cops, like Williams, are and can be beneficial to storylines trying to evoke fairness and justice. If anything, Williams' character  shows us that "good" cops can't do "good" in a corrupt system—they, too, must break the laws they uphold to give people the help they need.

We must interrogate why Williams could not correct her mistake and reopen the case. Considering the episode's title, it begs the question: who exactly did Williams "protect and serve" when she evaded responsibility and accountability for her actions? Was she protecting her reputation or the reputation of the police department? Who did she serve by not coming forward to the public when presented with new information? Moreover, why didn't Williams think the system would work for her? Is there a possibility that accountability would look differently for her because she's Black and queer? How is any of that fair or just?  

Policing is a systemic issue; the only way to beat it is to tear it down and build something completely different. Only Murders in the Building tricks us into believing that having a Black, Fat, Queer cop will ensure safety. Diversifying our way into policing doesn't provide the protection and care we need.


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Adedoyin "Ade" Adeniji

Adedoyin is a writer whose work primarily focuses on fashion, Black and African digital cultures, and social issues. When she’s not writing, you can find her buried on Pinterest pinning her favorite interior decor and Carrie Bradshaw looks.

Bria Massey

Bria is a technologist and newly-minted abolitionist and writer based in New York City. Her current research interests are at the intersection of human-computer interaction, algorithmic bias, and policy. She proudly represents Bull City (Durham, NC), where she was born and raised and is an alumna of North Carolina A&T State University, where she studied Computer Science and graduated in 2020.