“Only Murders in the Building” was a surprising triumph last year — a comedy whose amiable, low-key wit built in power as its first season ran on. With fine work by Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez at the center, it added up to a portrait of disaffected and alienated people.
In its second outing, “Only Murders” no longer has its element of surprise: We know what it can do. But that’s the only thing this show has lost. With its rococo details of life in a New York doorman-building overlaying careful and meticulous construction, the Hulu whodunit comedy is as strong as ever in its second outing.
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The series picks back up with the mystery established in the final moments of the first season: The murder of cranky co-op board president Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell). As the season runs on, we get real insight into Bunny’s life, and delve deeper into the backstories of the trio of leads — all of whom live in the same building, the Arconia, and record a podcast about the violence that seems to break out there frequently. The gestures toward the aesthetics and concerns of classic issues of the New Yorker on “Only Murders” aren’t just pretension; there is a crisp short-story air to individual installments probing the psyches and histories of our characters.
And that structure, in which character histories are isolated into carefully-built episodes, especially benefits Gomez. As a performer, Gomez has an off-kilter charisma that’s hard to pin down: It can feel as if she’s holding something back from the audience, like a take on the character that she’s unwilling to share. It suits a show whose very point is its characters’ isolation: Gomez’s Mabel Mora is at a remove even from herself. And this season devotes some real estate to further investigating why, with Gomez doing career-best work in a monologue describing Mabel’s puzzlement at her own behavior.
Like any good mystery, “Only Murders in the Building” isn’t just concerned with the “who” — in this season’s case, who killed Bunny — but the “why.” Gomez’s work is the most overtly dramatic of the three central characters, but Martin and Short, as Charles-Haden Savage and Oliver Putnam, come in for examination as well. One begins to get the sense of why they’re so relentlessly jokey.
And the jokes still work. Charles and Oliver’s shared delusion that they are the most interesting people in their line of sight gives rise both to the deliciousness of pomposity and the gratification of seeing it punctured, eventually, by Mabel. (A high point of the season comes in the form of Charles and Oliver bickering over who has a more accurate memory of the Iran-Contra affair, which sounds potentially stultifying but takes flight with an escalating series of gleefully deployed 1980s names.) The world beyond the three leads continues to feel richly drawn, with particularly sweet moments this season for Michael Cyril Creighton’s shy neighbor Howard.
That Arconia universe is also growing, encompassing a witty cameo by Amy Schumer, playing an outsized version of herself residing in the building, and an expanded role for Tina Fey as a true-crime podcast pioneer who’s dubious of Mabel and company’s operation. (If the actual podcast element of “Only Murders in the Building” seems to have fallen away somewhat, with characters less frequently seen recording, it’s counterbalanced by a show that feels richer and deeper elsewhere.)
Critics were not provided the final two episodes of the season, which means that it would be impossible to judge how well the “Only Murders” mystery comes together. But this is a show that’s operating on all cylinders — one that sidesteps the sophomore slump while balancing close character work with a world that is lovingly drawn. Coming at the moment the first season may well pick up several key Emmy nominations, this second season is an argument for the show’s staying power.
“Only Murders in the Building” will premiere its first two episodes on Hulu on Tuesday, June 28, with subsequent episodes to follow weekly.
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