“Only Murders in the Building” took me by surprise when I started watching it, towards the tail end of its first season broadcast. It’s not just that it’s a mystery series taking place in an entire New York Upper West Side building, but like its title – a mix of catchy, yet simple and encompassing the breadth of a true crime podcast, it chooses to lampoon and yet become a love letter to the growing fandom related to true crime podcasts. The show proves that true crime and the shared curiosity of learning about the sleazy, scandalous and suspenseful details of real-life murders, which produces a sense of following the proceedings in real-time, is a shared obsession transcending generations. This is proved by the friendship struck between the three protagonists – “retired” actor Charles Haden Savage (Steve Martin), struggling Broadway director Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), and Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez), a young woman who is renovating a refurbished apartment owned by her aunt. The three’s unlikely love for true crime podcasts makes them strange bedfellows as they strive to investigate a suspicious murder in that building and start up their podcast. True to form, hijinks ensue, from the fish-out-of-water scenarios for the two septuagenarians and Mabel’s teaching them and frustratingly correcting them about millennial terminologies with her deadpan delivery; the chemistry between Short and Martin; and a rich supporting cast comprised of Nathan Lane, Amy Ryan, and D’Avine Joy Randolph. But the biggest success of the show is the easy-going charm and the vibe of the investigation it manages to convey. There is a sense of reading through a mystery novel while sitting in a comforting armchair in front of the fireplace, and truly, that sense of intimacy and fun was the novelty that made the first season a surprise hit.
The second season opens up with the massive cliffhanger the first season left off, where the tough-as-nails board president of the Arconia, Bunny Folger, is found murdered, killed by a sewing needle, wearing an “Only Murders in the Building” hoodie, and the dead body is discovered by Mabel, who couldn’t remember what happened and how she found Bunny in that position. As the season opens, the trio finds themselves the chief suspects in the murder investigation. After being released from jail with the help of Detective Williams, the trio now have to return to Arconia to clear their names, solve the murder, and also release the podcast without having enough material for the season.
If you think that the last line is almost an encapsulation of the entire season, you are correct. And even the show knows it because creators John Hoffman and Steve Martin are adept at pointing out their influences as well as meta-narratives. From Charles Savage conversing with his ex-girlfriend and also the murderer in the previous season to Tina Fey’s character as Cinda Canning, the host of the true-crime podcast “All is Not OK in Oklahoma” (a clear parodic representation of Sarah Koenig, the host of This American Life and Serial), Hoffman and Martin double down on the lampooning of true crime podcasters and their fandom, with special mention given to how second seasons of true crime podcasts undergo sophomore slumps.
It could be a stroke of genius that the second season feels relatively aimless and has a certain lack of focus with the characters busy with their subplots, but that doesn’t change how “Only Murders in the Building” Season 2 feels like less than the sum of its parts. There are fascinating explorations of the characters’ backstories—from Charles’ extended family and his history tying into the current mystery; to Mabel’s burgeoning relationship with Alice Banks (Cara Delevingne); and to Oliver’s debated paternal conflicts with his son Henry, tying into a surprising history with Nathan Lane’s Teddy Dimas. This is in conjunction with an episode dedicated to Bunny Folger herself; Howard, the cat-loving resident of Apartment 3C; Nana Lin, the new protégé of Bunny; and a host of other characters. “Only Murders in the Building” Season 2 truly expands the Arconia into a living, breathing unit of its own, with the introduction of secret passageways throughout the building’s walls. With characters’ backstories getting more fleshed out, it feels like the natural next step is in luxuriating in the world that Hoffman and Martin created.
The catch, though, is that the show doesn’t come together in as coherent a fashion as you would want. The final resolution of the mystery in the season finale feels rushed, and even as the twists and turns come and the true perpetrator is revealed, it all feels haphazard, with the theatrical presentation and revelation of one killer acting as the double-blind for a secondary revelation. The confusion manages to accentuate the comedy, but it fails to come together as a satisfying final form.
But the individual parts ensure that the show remains an entertaining ride. Martin Short is still the standout among the trio. His Putnam has the wittiest lines and is the most flamboyant of the lot, but Steve Martin as Charles Haden Savage is also allowed to flex his style of comedy, and there are a handful of moments where Martin is allowed to showcase his emotional chops. Selena Gomez’s performance has really improved since the first season. She feels more at ease portraying Mabel as a character. Tina Fey as Cindy Canning is a welcome addition, while D’avine Joy Randolph is a fun supporting straight man, even when she isn’t present for the majority of the season. It’s Jayne Houdyshell as Bunny and Michael Cyril Creighton as Howard, who are the standout supporting performers of this season, with a very special appearance by Shirley McClaine as the icing on the cake.
“Only Murders in the Building” didn’t assuage my fears of it coming back for a second season, as it suffers from a sophomore slump. It also commits the cardinal sin of being self-aware to know that this season isn’t as good as the first, which is a clever meta-commentary on paper but only manages to highlight the glaring flaws if not executed correctly. However, it is still entertaining, and it still manages to convey the feeling of reading a comforting mystery. It is just the inferior follow-up to a fantastic debut. Moreover, as the teaser suggests, a third season is coming, so we will be seeing more of the intrepid trio, and honestly, I still won’t mind another trip to that world.
“Only Murders in the Building” is a 2021 Drama Comedy Series streaming on Hulu with subtitles.