In an upcoming episode of the Hulu comedy Only Murders in the Building, Charles (Steve Martin) is pleased with how much better he and fellow true-crime podcast fans Oliver (Martin Short) and Mabel (Selena Gomez) have gotten at maneuvering through a world of violence and mystery. Oliver agrees, saying, “You can tell this is our second season.”
It’s one of a plethora of self-aware jokes sprinkled throughout Only Murders‘ return. Its debut season told the story of Charles, Oliver, and Mabel launching their own podcast to investigate a neighbor’s killing in their swanky Manhattan apartment complex, the Arconia. Those 2021 episodes set a very high bar, working as both a hilarious true-crime parody and a genuinely exciting play-along mystery, all the way through a wonderful finale that served up equal amounts of humor and suspense. When the new season opens with the trio becoming suspects in the murder of longtime tenant board president Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell), Charles notes they have a rare opportunity to do a direct sequel to the original crime, where most true-crime podcasts “move on to a new case that never hits like the original.” The podcast’s superfans, constantly following their heroes, debate whether the show-within-the-show has gone downhill, and there’s competition from the main trio’s former hero, celebrity podcaster Cinda Canning (Tina Fey, reprising her role) who is out to ruin them with a rival podcast called Only Murderers in the Building.
But how does the actual, made-for-streaming-television show, starring a pair of comedy legends and a pop superstar, hold up in its own sequel season? Through the eight episodes (out of 10) given to critics, the results are mixed. It’s still tremendously entertaining and likable, and in some ways even better than the first in how it digs deep into characters who could so easily be cartoons. But the comedy feels a bit softer, or perhaps just more familiar, and the mystery is substantially shaggier.
Let’s start with the good. The three stars all have some dramatic roles on their resume — Steve Martin far more than the other two — but it’s still such a pleasant surprise that they and the creative team, led by showrunner John Hoffman, are able to take the inner lives of their characters, and many of the supporting characters, so seriously. In the new season, Charles grapples with unexpected truths about his late father and tries to figure out the new parameters of his relationship with Lucy (Zoe Colletti), the now-teenage daughter of one of his exes. Oliver tries to make sure his reconciliation with his son Will (Ryan Broussard) sticks, and that he doesn’t drown in his own narcissism. And after Mabel is found kneeling over Bunny’s corpse, with an incomplete memory of what actually happened, she has to wrestle with other parts of her past she has blocked out, and whether she might actually be capable of such a heinous act.
This is all played straight, and effectively, as are most of the spotlights on other familiar faces in and around the Arconia. The first episode opens with the “I Love New York” jingle from a late-Seventies tourism ad — a relic of an era when the city was flat broke and people were still afraid to visit — and the season as a whole feels like a celebration of the kinds of lovable eccentrics who are inextricably drawn to the Big Apple in both good times and bad. One of the first season’s best episodes was told from the point of view of Theo Dimas (James Caverly, who returns this season), the deaf son of murder suspect Teddy (Nathan Lane, also back, and continuing to revel in the ability to profanely threaten Martin Short). That approach expands here, as many episodes are narrated by characters other than Charles, and/or told from different perspectives, including an episode about Bunny’s final day on earth (and her undying love of the cursed New York Knicks), and a blackout episode that dimensionalizes minor characters like cat-obsessed Howard (Michael Cyril Creighton) and aging doorman Lester (Teddy Coluca).
The downside of extending this empathy so far beyond the central trio is that the main stylistic conceit of the series gets a little lost. Most of the episodes are no longer presented as if they could be part of the podcast, and it becomes clear early on that our heroes are deliberately keeping the majority of their investigation out of the podcast, because most of it involves elaborate attempts to frame them for Bunny’s murder. (That raises the question of what exactly is in the podcast; the closest we get to an answer is the superfans’ lament that the new season has too much filler.)
The fake podcast structure wasn’t wholly necessary, in that the sheer charm and chemistry of the leads carries an awful lot of weight. But its absence gives the new season a more rambling feel, and one that also affects the mystery itself. A big part of Season One’s magic was its ability to function as a mystery parody and the real thing at the same time, and much of that success depended on the scripts staying as focused on the plot and the suspects as they were on the comedy about Charles’ fading celebrity, Oliver’s love of dips, or the mens’ difficulty understanding millennials(*). The comedy is still there, albeit slightly more predictable, but the plot is sketchier. There are new suspects, most notably Cara Delevingne as Alice, an artist who becomes very interested in Mabel’s work (and then more). But major revelations — Charles’ father had a secret connection to Bunny! Alice’s motives are suspect! — are introduced and then quickly forgotten, making it harder to emotionally engage with the story, much less play along at home.
(*) To pay this forward, Mabel this season gets to realize that teenagers like Lucy are as alien to her as she is to Charles and Oliver.
The characters’ frequent acknowledgment that this is a sequel has its own pluses and minuses. The meta jokes are usually funny, and the choice of the new celebrity, playing themself, to move into Sting’s old penthouse apartment is a smart one. But the more the show talks about itself, the more the whole thing turns into a weird math equation. Alice, for instance, appears to slot in as the new Jan (Amy Ryan), Charles’ unexpected love interest who turned out to be Season One’s killer. That would seem to clear Alice of suspicion, if only because no show would risk doing the exact same trick twice. But maybe that’s what Hoffman and company want us to think? The more the show invites us down these kinds of rabbit holes, the less we’re existing within the story.
And yet there are still these three hugely appealing actors who work so well together. There is still a deep bench of colorful supporting characters played by great comic performers in their own right, with new ones being added. (Look for Short’s old SCTV co-star Andrea Martin as Joy, the makeup artist who worked with Charles on his old cop drama Brazzos.) There is still a deep affection for the genre, and for New York City itself. The cracks in the Arconia’s foundation are starting to show this year, and the same is true for Only Murders in the Building. But both are still lovely places to visit.
In one episode, Oliver considers inviting one of the podcast’s superfans on to share a new theory about the Bunny case. When Charles and Mabel start to object, Oliver replies, “What? We’re low on quality content this season.” As for the real Only Murders in the Building, it may be somewhat lower, but it remains quality.
The second season of Only Murders in the Building premieres June 28 on Hulu, with episodes releasing weekly.