Steve Martin, Selena Gomez, and Martin Short pretty much recapture the magic in the second season of Hulu’s comic-book crime thriller.
When you take a bite of seven-layer dip – a recipe that’s a little more involved but still desirable than what Oliver Putnam, Martin Short’s spice-craving character, constantly consumes during “Only Murders in the Building” – you get it the desired result from simple addition: each ingredient or layer complements the next, combining to create a delicious treat, albeit of such density that the firmness of each chip can be tested. While Oliver likes to subsist on lighter toppings like tzatziki and hummus, a seven-layer dip could well be considered a meal (not healthy, mind you, but still a filling dish). And even if it’s not the main course, even if noshers consume just a few scoops with Tostitos, or tweak two or three flavors — cut out beans and guac, avoiding olives and onions — they’re usually content with this snack, given its versatility, its depth, its far-reaching appeal.
Comparing a professionally made, award-winning TV series like Only Murders in the Building to a quickly devoured party snack is admittedly reductive, but I promise not to stretch the metaphor as far as the series stretches Oliver’s zesty infatuation. (Somebody make the man a sandwich!) In Season 1, John Hoffman’s and Steve Martin’s genre mashup hit every level (layers?). Its comedy was sweet, its mystery intriguing, its true-crime commentary on point, its show-in-a-show charming, and its characters endearing as they sizzled in collaboration. The show threw many ingredients into the mix and told a clean, clever story that brought them all together. A hit was born. The demand was raised. And Season 2 — premiering less than a year after the original debuted — is here to feed those hungry Hulu subscribers.
That’s exactly what it should do, even if second gear is a bit messier than first. Straight to the next crime – the bloody death of Bunny (Jane Houdyshell), Arconia’s overbearing CEO, who ended up with a knitting needle in her chest in the Season 1 finale – Season 2 builds its story quickly, bouncing between red herrings and legitimate clues, while lighter moments of levity, meta-innuendos galore and personal revelations are crammed in for our central trio of Oliver, Charles (Steve Martin) and Mabel (Selena Gomez). Early episodes are crowded and unbalanced. Questions are piling up, and not just about the case. But the main ingredients are still there, and Season 2 of Only Murders leans towards them accordingly. While this dip isn’t last year’s showpiece, it — it might crack a few fries under the strain of its hefty helpings — is still a welcome treat that you can enjoy as you see fit.
okay okay No more food talk. No spoilers either. What can be said about Season 2 (across eight of the ten episodes) is mostly what established fans already know, given how closely the writing team is trying to stick to the original formula. On the same night that Bunny’s murder occurred, our podcast hosts have become people of interest to the police. Mabel is a prime suspect who was found in her apartment with the victim’s body. Charles and Oliver are their friends, business partners, and first on the scene. Detective Williams (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) stands by her side impatiently, but she’s joined by Detective Kreps, a podcast-hating, Howard Stern-loving (“before he got gentrified”) investigator played by Michael Rapaport. However, they do agree on one thing: Charles, Mabel and Oliver can not Podcast on this case. The police, not the suspects, should be looking for the killer.
Of course, that doesn’t sit well with Oliver or anyone else. After developing a taste for detective work, they can’t help but get to the bottom of things, and just because they live in the building, they stumble upon suspicious characters, including previous tenants like Uma (Jackie Hoffman) and Howard (Michael Cyril Creighton). non-featured residents like new CEO Nina Lin (Christine Ko) and celebrity new penthouse owner Amy Schumer (Amy Schumer), as well as newcomers played by Cara Delevingne and Shirley MacLaine. (No, they don’t play themselves, à la Ms. Schumer and Mr. Sting. Their characters’ identities are only on the spoiler list for some reason.)
Aside from who they can’t avoid, what our trio discovers is also right under their noses. The Arconia itself takes center stage through flashbacks and mysteries, steadily expanding the meaning of a setting that has proven integral to the series’ success – it’s Only Murders inside the building,” finally. If murders are to continue happening here, it needs a backstory. So why not shine the spotlight on the Upper West Side apartment complex along with the people it houses?
Production designer Patrick Howe and set designer Rich Murray continue to thrive, choosing eye-catching color combinations, dressing each scene with intelligent detail, and constructing a labyrinthine ancient Arcadia that’s fun to get lost in. So does costume designer Dana Covarrubias, who continues to add thoughtful flourishes to Mabel’s aunt’s wardrobe, and the rest of the craft team shines despite a quick turnaround between seasons.
Craig Blankenhorn / Hulu
Only the plotting feels cluttered. A new mystery starring many of the same people, many new faces, and in the same place isn’t easy to make believable. It takes time. As a result, episodes quickly shift focus and dangle threads. It might be satisfying to follow the case week in and week out, but being seen in chunks (I watched a few episodes at once) can be annoying. This investigation is not as stable or tidy as the last one.
Other changes arise from necessity. The thrill of discovering our three leads gives way to an overhaul of their favorite character traits (Charles’ love for his old TV show Brazzos, Mabel’s meaningful relationships, Oliver’s dips). Minor stars are written out to strengthen new arcs, while others are inscribed as a reminder of what worked before. The humor is heavily meta. Respectful jokes about how difficult it can be to make a successful sequel, to acknowledge the obvious bumpiness and hopefully excuse some of it.
All of these adjustments, both subtle and garish, may wear viewers down in search of the same cozy experience they remember, but growing pains are part of the process in an ongoing series, and Only Murders in the Building still delivers the simple joys of Steve the incredible skills of Martin and Martin Short. A joke here, a look there, and you glow. I’ll never get enough of their fake bickering or extended attachments (usually over long-forgotten names, places, or scandals). Others may find the same satisfaction in Gomez’s dry, snarky lines, or in the smug smile Short makes when he “nails” a line for the podcast. Then there are the aforementioned sets and outfits or the parade of famous faces parading through Arcadia.
Tastes may differ, but that’s part of the beauty of such a bold selection. There is always something to enjoy.
Only Murders in the Building Season 2 premieres Tuesday, June 28 with two episodes on Hulu. New episodes are released weekly.