Pivoting to podcasting is so common that even Carrie Bradshaw has embraced this format. In the HBO Max revival And Just Like That, the former columnist has swapped her Sex and the City print-media gigs for the sex- and gender-focused XY and Me podcast. Whereas her words used to flow freely, Carrie struggles with this form of mass communication. It is just one of the ways AJLT attempts (with mixed results) to marry the past with the present. The abundance of podcast options in real life means it is hardly surprising that fictional characters are getting in on the action, and in 2021, shows including Only Murders in the Building, Dexter: New Blood, and even Succession have used this source of entertainment to add to the narrative.
It has been seven years since Serial first captured the public’s attention and planted a flag for every true-crime podcast to follow. Despite a guilty verdict, the 1999 murder of high schooler Hae Min Lee was a case haunted by inconsistencies, a muddled timeline, and unanswered questions that led to feverish responses whenever an episode dropped. An abundance of cold cases and unsolved mysteries have since captured imaginations via this medium, and TV shows like Homecoming and The Shrink Next Door have also been adapted from existing podcasts.
A logical result of this cycle is scripted television giving investigative journalists and amateur sleuth characters a podcast rather than a blog, local newspaper, or radio platform. The gone-too-soon Netflix comedy American Vandal satirized elements of Serial, hosted by This American Life journalist Sarah Koenig-such as the cliffhanger setup for the next episode-but no series has encapsulated the signature flourishes as well as Hulu’s charming crime comedy Only Murders in the Building.
“I’m sure that every true-crime podcaster wishes that he was on the case right from the start,” observes Oliver (Martin Short) in the opening Only Murders episode as part of his pitch to Mabel (Selena Gomez) and Charles (Steve Martin) to turn the mysterious death in their co-op into a lucrative project. The three loners are united by their love of All is Not OK in Oklahoma, a Serial-esque mystery that finds Tina Fey playing the Koenig-like Cinda Canning. Even if you haven’t thought about the Serial phenomenon in a few years, the plinky-plonk piano score accompanying these scenes provides an instant flashback to 2014. It hasn’t taken this long for true-crime podcasts to find their way into mainstream TV and movies, but Only Murders is the first to successfully embrace the format as its narrative spine.
The unlikely trio is brought together by a fire alarm that’s pulled the night a new All is Not OK in Oklahoma episode is released, and they each bring a useful skill set to the investigative table. Mabel’s fondness for Hardy Boys novels and the games she used to play in the Arconia building ensures she isn’t here to simply add a Gen Z edge, while Charles’ former TV detective role has gifted him with talents such as picking locks. Oliver, a flamboyant Broadway director, is the ideas guy, and his desire to find the next big success story grounds the more fantastical elements of their detecting.
Deftly straddling a line between comedy and crime, the series-which Martin and Grace and Frankie writer John Hoffman co-created-nails small details, such as the overly friendly messages from sponsors and the title graphics that resemble a digital screen. Oliver suggests a broader podcast franchise before they’ve even recorded their first episode, but Charles wisely says they should keep a narrow focus: “only murders in the building.” The rules are quickly established that any crimes outside of the Arconia co-op are not to be considered, and by the end of the season, the trio themselves have become the subjects of Cinda Canning’s next series.
Molly Park (Jamie Chung) spreads her true-crime net further on Dexter: New Blood, and she is an accidental tether to Dexter Morgan’s (Michael C. Hall) past. The Los Angeles-based podcaster has come to Iron Lake, New York, after the disappearance of Matt Caldwell (Steve M. Robertson), and Molly inadvertently opens an old Morgan family wound. Before Matt’s unexplained departure-the viewers know Dexter is the killer-he had already escaped punishment for a crime that sounds suspiciously similar to South Carolina’s real-life Murdaugh family saga. FITSNews journalist Mandy Matney is investigating that tangled web, which includes the podcast series, Murdaugh Murders. Coincidence? Perhaps, though elements of this Dexter revival storyline suggest an art-imitates-life angle.
One aspect that is clear regarding Molly’s Merry Fucking Kill series (yes, it is meant to be a pun on the “Marry, Fuck, Kill” game) is how it blurs the true-crime subgenre lines: It is part Serial-style investigation, part My Favorite Murder irreverent retelling. Molly ends up being a catalyst for multiple plot developments, which stretches her profession to whatever the writers want it to be. In one episode, Molly joins police chief Angela Bishop (Julia Jones) on a trip to Manhattan as an unofficial co-investigator, and in the following installment she almost ends up dead at the hands of a different serial killer stalking this town. A decade ago, she would’ve been a local reporter trying to land the big scoop or a Freddie Lounds tabloid type. (If Bryan Fuller ever gets to make more Hannibal, Freddie will surely be a podcaster.) But Molly has a low opinion of old media, telling Angela, “I’m not a reporter. I’m a podcaster. Print is dead.”
Molly’s series on prolific murders from Dexter’s old Sunshine State stomping ground has an unsettling effect on Dexter’s son Harrison (Jack Alcott). Being born in blood and the side effects of experiencing violence at a young age are part of the Dexter DNA, and Harrison’s memories of his mother’s gruesome murder are awakened when he listens to Merry Fucking Kill’s Trinty Killer (John Lithgow) entry. You, too, can hear the 10-minute episode, and if the viral podcaster burns through each case with such speed, it is no wonder she can manage an active investigation alongside documenting past incidents. Dexter is convinced Molly is the reason why Angela discovered his true identity (she isn’t) and has come to Iron Lake because she knows he is behind Miami’s trail of bodies (she doesn’t). Molly had better watch her back, as she might end up enduring the same bloody fate as the podcasters who thought it was a good idea to visit an institutionalized Michael Myers in the 2018 Halloween revival.
A reminder of traumatic history is how the penultimate episode of Succession‘s third season used an aside about a forthcoming podcast series addressing “the curse of the Roys.” Comfrey (Dasha Nekrasova, a controversial podcaster herself) compares this to the Kennedy family skeletons, not realizing her boss has his own Chappaquiddick incident. Kendall (Jeremy Strong) will never shed the guilt from his involvement in the death of a cater waiter at his sister’s wedding, and it undoubtedly fueled his desire to save the soul of Waystar Royco. The mere mention of the waiter as a podcast topic (other potential episodes include Connor’s mother and Logan’s sister, who is a trigger for the Roy patriarch) is enough to prompt Kendall to approach his father about cashing out of the family business-he failed his white-knight mission to save Waystar, and this is how he thinks he can save himself. For a series depicting a media empire, a podcast is a natural progression.
Returning to the inevitability of Carrie Bradshaw adding “podcaster” to her résumé, this updated storyline is equal parts cringey and comforting. Sara Ramirez plays Che, the effortlessly charming XY and Me co-host who somehow manages to make the description of the podcast (“gender roles, sexual roles, and cinnamon rolls”) sound less cloying. In recognizing Carrie as the cisgender, hetero-woman POV and Che as the nonbinary queer perspective, it is certainly an improvement on a show that once posited that being bisexual is maybe “a layover on the way to Gay Town.”
However, much like Carrie’s work performance, AJLT has had a shaky start. It’s hard to reconcile Carrie’s embarrassment at the masturbation discussion in the first episode with the woman who sat at the same table as Samantha (Kim Cattrall) over brunch or who wrote about faking orgasms and golden showers. Sure, the characters would have changed during the decade we didn’t see them, but Carrie’s contrived regression is incongruous to who she was-even in the movies. Furthermore, the use of the eye-roll-worthy “trigger warning” sound effect gives the impression that this is a radio show in the vein of Howard Stern.
2021 is not the first year when podcasts have provided scripted TV plot points (and some movie ones, too, like Brian Tyree Henry’s conspiracy podcaster in Godzilla vs. Kong). But to see stories featuring Carrie Bradshaw and Dexter Morgan utilizing a format that was a speck on the horizon when they were last part of the cultural zeitgeist underlines how relevant both revivals are striving to be. It is also notable that the series can’t quite escape contrivances within their respective reliance on podcasting as a plot (and character) device. Similar to the crowded podcast landscape, television offers illimitable choice, and Only Murders in the Building is the show that fully understands how to get an audience to hit the “like and subscribe” button.Want more Thrillist? Follow us on Instagram, Twitter, Pinterest, YouTube, TikTok, and Snapchat.
Emma Fraser is a freelance culture writer with a focus on TV, movies, and costume design. She has contributed to Elle, Vulture, The Cut, Little White Lies, and more. Follow her on Twitter at @frazbelina.