Welcome to Previously On, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. In this edition, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews season 2 of Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building.
There’s a point early in the new season of Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building when guest star Amy Schumer explains exactly why she loves the podcast of the same name around which the mystery-comedy is built. “I was never that into murder before,” she says, before clarifying that she means true crime podcasts, “but you guys just made it feel so cozy. Cozy murder!”
Indeed, with a second season that’s even better than its first, Steve Martin and John Hoffman’s series is the epitome of a cozy murder show. The series is a perfect mystery for the faint of heart or the serious true crime fatigued. Warm and mild-mannered despite its characters’ obsessions with murder weapons and MOs, Only Murders in the Building is a sweet comedy oasis in a world of fast and mean television.
The series’ second season picks up right where the first left off, with washed-up actor Charles (Steve Martin), self-aggrandizing theater director Oliver (Martin Short), and their sardonic and reserved younger neighbor, Mabel (Selena Gomez) getting arrested for questioning in yet another murder. This time, it’s the stabbing death of their apartment’s board president, Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell, terrific in flashback), who Mabel was found standing over covered in blood in the first season finale.
Only Murders in the Building invites a whole slew of stars on board for its second go-round, starting with Michael Rapaport as the bad cop to Da’Vine Joy Randolph’s good cop. The pair interrogate the Upper West Side’s most bumbling investigators slash amateur podcasters, but quickly let them go after deeming them persons of interest. From there on out, the trio of disorganized, easily distractable crime fighters are on the case, aiming to clear their name even as an unseen party seems determined to frame them.
Oliver, Charles, and Mabel also want to make a good sequel season to their podcast, despite Charles’ insistence that most true long-form crime pods never pull off a direct sequel. Despite his worries, Only Murders in the Building – the show – thrives in its second season, partly by minimizing the previously obtrusive podcast framing device. The podcast, though less-than-central to season two, serves as a source of great meta-comedy in the series, as a chorus of fans serves as armchair critics, giving feedback that may as well be for the series itself.
The fame the podcast has brought the trio also puts them on the spot, as Schumer (playing a character with her own name who seems nothing like her real public persona), a hip artist named Alice (Cara DeLevigne), and Tina Fey’s podcast star Cindy Canning all become interested in the amateur sleuths. Shirley MacLaine also guest-stars. Each supporting actor is employed perfectly, and the show deftly balances its new mystery with characters’ own personal dramas so that it’s not particularly easy to guess the killer ahead of time.
Only Murder in the Building’s much-lauded first season was good but only sporadically funny. When it did crack decent jokes, they were still very much in the vein of Martin and Short’s milder material. The show never quite gave its comedy legends the chance to go all in. This season’s biggest improvement upon the first is that its humor has sharpened, with laugh-out-loud moments in each of the eight episodes available for review. Whether Martin’s joking about a nude painting or Short’s making a wackily unpredictable comment about one of his ‘70s relationships, the pair are as capable of inducing wheeze-inducing punchlines as ever.
The show’s purpose has clarified with time, too. The first season of Only Murders in the Building at times felt too comedically light to be the best sitcom of its kind, yet too light on the true crime to be a truly searing satire of the cultural obsession. This season, it’s more obvious than ever that the show’s potential shortcoming is also its greatest asset: it’s light. Despite unlucky Mabel’s sense of doom and gloom and the murders at the show’s center, it’s actually a series that’s perfectly content to entertain for a half hour each week without asking much more of its audience than that. The series is a diversion in the best sense of the world, an unpretentious comedy that seems to exist only to bring a dash of joy into viewers’ lives.
This isn’t to say that Only Murders in the Building doesn’t serve up a great mystery in its sophomore season as well. The case of Bunny’s death is an intriguing smattering of clues and suspects, like a great murder mystery parlor game. It’s also not the only mystery this season, as all three members of the podcasting squad dig into murky aspects of their own pasts. These plots woven together make for an excellent season that’s also another win for the week-to-week episode format.
A gentle comedy and a thoroughly entertaining mystery, Only Murders in the Building season two is so good that I kind of hope people keep getting knocked off in that old apartment forever.