Strangers and Neighbors

Reminiscent of Alfred Hitchcock’s masterpiece Rear Window, Season 1 of Only Murders in the Building depicts the disconnectedness of modern life and asks its audience to consider the extent to which increasingly democratic art forms benefit or harm liberal democracy. Indeed, Chris Teague, the director of photography for Only Murders in the Building, noted the intentional “thematic similarity” between the ten-episode Hulu series and the film: “people watching each other, peeking into other people’s lives, and thinking they see something that may or may not be there.”

In Rear Window, L. B. “Jeff” Jeffries (Jimmy Stewart), a photojournalist bedridden in a cast in his small Greenwich-Village apartment for six weeks after an automobile accident, has “nothing to do but look out the window at the neighbors.” In the middle of a rainy night, he hears a woman scream and then sees her husband, Mr. Thorwald (Raymond Burr), leave and return three times. In the following days, Jeff obsessively watches the suspected murderer calmly wrap a knife and saw in newspaper, ship off a large trunk, and fiddle with his wife’s wedding ring. Reluctant at first, his fashionista girlfriend Lisa Fremont (Grace Kelly) eventually joins him in his amateur sleuthing.

In Only Murders in the Building, three residents of the Arconia, a lavish apartment building in the Upper West Side, accidentally become friends when they discover their shared love for a true-crime podcast called “All’s Not OK in Oklahoma”: Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin), a washed-up star of a 90s cop show, Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), a smarmy has-been Broadway director on the brink of bankruptcy, and Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez), a mysterious young woman with bright-red Beats headphones. After learning about the apparent suicide of one of the residents in the building, Tim Kono (Julian Cihi), they suspect murder and launch their own true-crime podcast, called “Only Murders in the Building,” as they investigate.

Democratic Individualism

For the characters in Rear Window, one of the most puzzling aspects of the crime is why Mr. Thorwald would parade it “in front of an open window.” Similarly, in the first moments of Only Murders in the Building, Charles narrates that there’s no reason to worry about crime in New York City because “there’s eyes on you all over the place here.”

Population density, however, is not a sufficient basis for community.

In Rear Window’s title credits, the camera looks out the rear window of Jeff’s apartment on a sweltering summer morning, and as the shades scroll up to reveal the apartments across the backyard, we see the intimate details of the lives of his neighbors: a man shaving while listening to the radio, a man and woman sleeping on their fire escape to escape the heat, a beautiful young woman putting on her bra and dancing while she brews coffee, and a husband and wife quarreling in their bedroom.

Similarly, in the animated title credits of Only Murders in the Building, the camera zooms in on the entrance of the Arconia before it abruptly pans up the building itself, showing through the front-facing windows the main characters, alone in their respective apartments: Charles trying to cook an omelet, Oliver on his phone while drinking a glass of wine in an ostentatious purple coat, and Mabel sketching on her iPad.

As Alexis de Tocqueville observed of citizens of democratic regimes, the characters are “indifferent and like strangers to each other.” Democratic peoples, Tocqueville writes, are predisposed to the disease of individualism, a sentiment that inclines “each citizen to isolate himself” from his neighbors, to “withdraw to the side with his family and his friends,” and “finally to enclose himself entirely within the solitude of his own heart.”

Tocqueville writes that this disposition to individualism is eventually fatal to both virtue and liberty. Praising public indifference, individualism encourages selfishness and shrinks the soul of the citizen. Indeed, some in democracies call the citizen that “willingly abandons the society to itself” a good neighbor. Placing citizens “side by side, without a common bond to hold them,” it makes them vulnerable to tyranny—or in these stories, to killers who attempt to take advantage of their neighbors’ isolation from and indifference to each other.

Hitchcock most overtly alerts his audience to these dangers when the fire-escape couple realize their dog has been murdered and its body left in the backyard between apartment buildings (notably, the most “public” space in the film). From the fire escape, the wife screams in agony into the night: “You don’t know the meaning of the word neighbors. Neighbors like each other, speak to each other, care if anybody lives or dies. But none of you do.” As she turns to go inside, the neighbors, having been drawn to their windows by the commotion, casually return to their private lives with a shrug. “It’s only a dog,” says a partygoer at a neighboring apartment.

Similarly, rather than eulogize the deceased Tim Kono at his memorial service in the lobby of the building, the residents of the Arconia callously grumble that Tim, an asthmatic, prevented them from using their fireplaces. “I hated that guy,” says Charles. “He ruined Christmas,” exclaims one resident. “He once yelled at me for smoking outside,” adds another. “Can we all just be grateful he’s gone?” asks the board director, moments after admitting that the service was being held only for some “bulls**t insurance purposes.” On the lookout for a suspect, the protagonists finally notice a resident (played by Michael Cyril Creighton) crying, only to learn that his cat, Evelyn, died the night before. A neighbor gasps. “Did you say Evelyn died?” “The sweet blond tabby?” “Oh no! She died?” As a kid, Tim Kono knew “everyone” in the building. At his death, he is, as Charles observes, “less likeable than a dead cat.”

“Looking” in Rear Window

Hitchcock uses the rear window of Jeff’s apartment to represent the big screen on which we watch Jeff watch his neighbors. In his review of the Rear Window, Roger Ebert writes that “[t]he experience is not so much like watching a movie, as like . . . well, spying on your neighbors.”

Jeff’s “looking” seems to strengthen his two seemingly inconsistent vices: detachment and nosiness. Jeff’s long-distance camera allows him to be distant and up close at the same time. He investigates the steamy details of his neighbors’ private lives and is enraged when his detective friend Coyne (Wendell Corey) refuses to search Mr. Thorwald’s apartment without cause and a warrant. Looking can be a threat to privacy. In addition, looking through rear windows affords the spectator only context-deficient, narrow images of life. As a result, Jeff knows the intimate lives of his neighbors but does not know them. His belittling nicknames for them—“Miss Torso,” the “eat-drink-and-be-merry” shirtless dancer, and “Miss Lonelyhearts,” the spinster who drinks alone and eventually considers suicide—reduce complex human beings to their most obvious characteristic. Detached observation promises to but cannot ultimately satiate our longing for community.

If the rear window out of which Jeff looks represents the big screen, the small windows across the backyard seem to predict the rise of new, more democratic mediums for film. Following Rear Window, Only Murders in the Building makes this more explicit: the alighted windows of the Arconia in the opening credits represent the phone screens on which we, individual viewers, binge the show or aimlessly scroll as it plays on the TV in the background. These new mediums further isolate the citizens of democratic regimes by privatizing the viewer’s experience. Indeed, we in the audience have become more like Jeff since the advent of streaming services. We have become bored and lonely spectators, entertained by rear windows.

Tocqueville reminds us that enlightened self-love can habituate democratic citizens to sacrifice “a portion of their time and their wealth” for the common good by reminding them that their particular interest merges with the general interest.

“Looking” and Celebrity in Only Murders in the Building

Like Jeff in Rear Window, Oliver, Mabel, and Charles are both prying and emotionally distant. Able-bodied (unlike Jeff), they break into their neighbor’s apartments at will and often do not clearly reveal that they are recording their conversations with the residents of the Arconia. “Is that even legal?” asks Charles. The punchline of some of the show’s darkest comedic moments is the incongruity between the seriousness of Kono’s death and the levity with which Oliver treats it as he uses the sponsorship for the podcast to stave off eviction. Like Jeff in Rear Window, they too nickname their neighbors—“Sexy Bassoonist” (Amy Ryan), “Real Estate Woman” (Zainab Jah), and “Cat Daddy.”

As Tocqueville observed, democratic art is mass produced, and, hence, it is cheap and widely available, imitative and realistic. Rather than build grand palaces of white marble that will stand for millennia as a testament to the greatness of the human spirit, people living in democracies are compelled to make a quick profit and build useful buildings with white-washed bricks. Rather than imagine the transcendence of the soul or things beyond or far from their time, artists in democracies “lend their talent to reproducing exactly the details of the private life that they have constantly before their eyes.”

As Only Murder in the Building shows, the true-crime podcast has further democratized art: anyone can start a podcast. Their podcast is a hastily released, low-budget production (Oliver plans to return the equipment in a few days to get his money back) about a grisly murder that mimics other true-crime podcasts and, like most podcasts, is available for free.

This hyper democratization of art constantly tempts the average person with the possibility of celebrity. (For example, the first two seasons of the genre-defining true-crime podcast, “Serial,” have been downloaded more than 250 million times.) But the result of fame is often loneliness: “they never know the real us,” muses Charles, an actor who still gets recognized on the street. Moreover, the disordered desire for celebrity tends to isolate individuals by encouraging them to share mere curated versions of their lives, hiding or simply lying about the “messy” and hence human parts of their stories.

Attempting to make their podcast “pop,” the protagonists to a large degree live life as if they themselves were being viewed through a rear window. As both narrator of the true-crime podcast and investigator of the crime (thus combining the roles of Jimmy Stewart and L. B. “Jeff” Jeffries), Charles frequently confuses art and reality. “I can’t tell if you’re acting or not,” says Mabel in frustration, after realizing the anecdote Charles told her about his abusive father was actually from an episode of his TV show Brazzos.

On their first date, Jan, the “Sexy Bassoonist,” liberally shares with Charles how her absent father’s preference for her half-sister (who had chosen the flute) led her to the bassoon. When she asks Charles about his childhood, he responds vaguely (“First, um . . . my parents were great. Yeah.”) and then deflects (“Oh, you know what? I love . . . that purse!”). Refusing to share his life, Charles cannot form genuine relationships or be a part of genuine community. “You know, the sharing of stories is kind of transactional,” retorts Jan. “When someone gives you a story, you owe them one of equal or greater value in return.” She recklessly escalates the intimacy of the relationship in the way of an impersonal transaction, but her comment does point to the truth: relationships are built on trust as each individual shares and guards the true and progressively intimate parts of each other’s life, over time.

Tutoring Self-Interest

Perhaps even more than Rear Window, Only Murders in the Building presents a dark picture of disconnectedness in modern American life. And yet, the characters in these stories find common life together and come to see the importance of shared public life—in spite of, or maybe because of, their democratic art.

Mary Nichols and Denise Schaeffer observe that Jeff and Lisa’s relationship is at an impasse, since Lisa “belongs to that rarefied atmosphere of Park Avenue” and he to a life of adventure—until they begin the common enterprise of looking, and “their differences become less divisive than complementary.” Though from different generations and backgrounds, Charles, Oliver, and Mabel form their unlikely friendship through investigating the murder and producing their podcast.

However, as they continue to look together, these characters begin to look with empathy as they imagine themselves in their neighbors’ shoes. Detective Doyle’s scolding—“that’s a secret, private world you’re looking into out there”—prompts Lisa to question their “rear window ethics” and Jeff to imagine how he would feel if his neighbors looked at him as he looks at them, “like a bug under glass.” “Whatever happened to that old saying, ‘Love thy neighbor’?” reflects Lisa.

As Charles, Oliver, and Mabel try to find a reason for their audience to care about Tim Kono’s death, Mabel (who knew Tim when they were kids) eventually says, “He was alone. Isn’t that enough to make us care? You of all people should know how f*cking sad that is.” “You’re right,” says Charles. “Tim Kono was a person. He was a neighbor.” Charles begins to care about Tim when he notices their similarity. The stories present an “empathetic looking” as the alternative to not looking, on one hand, and detached looking, on the other.

Tocqueville explained that Americans had mitigated individualism by an education in political liberty cultivated in their local communities, and especially through “the doctrine of self-interest well understood.” “Clear and sure” rather than “lofty,” this enlightened self-love can habituate democratic citizens to sacrifice “a portion of their time and their wealth” for the common good by reminding them that their particular interest merges with the general interest. When they see that the community is composed of individuals like them, they believe they indirectly serve themselves “by serving [their] fellows.”

In Only Murders in the Building, Oliver and Mabel discover that Jan poisoned Tim Kono for breaking up with her, and as she poisons Charles in his apartment, she reveals her plan to gas the entire building through the air duct connecting the newly opened fireplaces. “I mean, in a way, it makes us all connected in the building,” she jokes as she leaves. Oliver and Mabel find Charles writhing on the floor and mumbling barely intelligible gibberish, but rather than run for their lives, the protagonists rush to the boiler room to stop her. What started as enlightened self-love has led them to risk their lives for their neighbors. When Jan pulls her gun on them, Charles stands up for his new friends (at least in his drug-addled head): “before this, I was a hollow shell walking around. And they made me alive.” To everyone else, he is speaking slurred, garbled nonsense, but it distracts Jan long enough for Oliver and Mabel to knock the gun out of her hand.

If Tocqueville is right, that moralists should principally turn their minds to the doctrine of self-interest well understood, then Rear Window and Only Murders in the Building serve an indispensable function by reminding us of our isolation, pointing to the dangers of detached observation, and tutoring our self-interest, which may “imperceptibly” draw democratic citizens “closer to virtue by habits.”