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Where Only Murders in the Building Lost Its Way

Our reviewers dissect the Hulu comedy-mystery's uneven second season.
  • Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Selena Gomez in Only Murders in the Building. (Hulu)
    Martin Short, Steve Martin, and Selena Gomez in Only Murders in the Building. (Hulu)

    The following post references the Season 2 finale of Only Murders in the Building, which releases today on Hulu.

    Second seasons can be notoriously tricky. Primetimer’s own Aaron Barnhart recently argued that all shows should end after their first batch of episodes, and he was only sort of kidding.

    But when a series is as popular, critically lauded, and awards-laden as Only Murders in the Building, the fear of diminishing returns is not going to stand in the way. Hulu’s mystery-comedy — which stars Steve Martin, Martin Short, and Selena Gomez as neighbors who start a podcast about the murders in their fancy New York apartment building — was one of TV’s breakout hits last year, and its first season is currently nominated for a whopping 17 Emmys. A second season was inevitable, and it has just dropped its finale.

    Was it worth the return visit? We put that question to Mark Blankenship and Joe Reid, Primetimer’s Reviews Editor and Managing Editor. Their discussion follows below.

    Mark Blankenship: Joe, when we first agreed to talk about the second season of Only Murders in the Building, I was only five episodes in, and I felt confident I’d be a cheerleader. I’d heard from others that the series had dropped off in quality, but at that point it still had everything I loved from the first year: Smart writing, great jokes, excellent performances, and production design that made me want to move into the Arconia, no matter how many people have died there.

    Then I kept watching. And hoo boy, the back half of this season was such a trainwreck that I’m almost doubting whether I enjoyed the first season. Did I maybe dream that I found it to be such sparkling entertainment?

    I mean… I know I didn’t dream it, but I also know that Season 1 was especially pleasurable because it worked as a murder mystery as much as it did a comedy. This season, however, the writers seemed almost hostile to the idea of delivering a coherent mystery plot.

    For instance, Charles (Steve Martin) gets one of his biggest clues when he inexplicably decides to pry the back off his dad’s old watch, where he just happens to find an engraved message . How fortunate! And how very convenient that immediately after Mabel (Selena Gomez) stabs a bad guy on a train, we learn that she enters a fugue state when something stressful happens and then can’t remember anything. We’ve never heard about this before, even though plenty of stressful stuff has befallen her, but I guess when the writers are too lazy to justify their choices in any other way, the sudden revelation of selective amnesia will do.

    I’m not saying I need the show to be “realistic,” but you can’t just toss in any old revelation to move the story forward. Did this bother you at all, or do I need to cool it?

    Joe Reid: The only person who needs to cool it is Michael Rappaport doing his usual Michael Rappaport thing in yet another TV show. I don't think I ended up with quite the same bad taste in my mouth for Season 2, although I'll chalk that up to a final 15-20 minutes in the finale that sold me with a lot of chutzpah and energy (if not a super satisfying solution to the mystery, but I'll get to that), not to mention a tease for Season 3 that worked on me despite all my higher faculties telling me not to be such a sucker.

    But you're right that there was something lacking at the center of this season, and I agree that that's where a satisfying mystery should have gone. Only Murders in the Building didn't thrive solely on Agatha Christie-level mystery storytelling in its first season, and it definitely owed a lot of its success to the charm and chemistry of Martin, Short, and Gomez as its leads, but the Tim Kono murder was very satisfying to puzzle through as our protagonists/podcasters amassed clues, investigated suspects, hit dead ends, and ultimately figured it out. And while that investigation ended up tying in to things like Mabel's personal history, those personal details were supplemental to the mystery.

    What aggravated me during long stretches of Only Murders Season 2 was the sense that the show was taking meandering detours into the characters' personal lives soley in service of treading water until the mystery of who killed Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell) could get solved. To what end, really, was that entire side plot about Charles's father and the mystery artist (who turned out to be Shirley MacLaine) with whom he was in love? You could say the same about Charles's daughter figure, Lucy, or even the mystery paternity of Oliver's son. Yes, these detours provided some good emotional beats for Charles and Oliver, but the show struggled to make them feel essential to the larger story.

    And after that much wheel-spinning, the final two episodes had the feeling of someone who realized they had a book report due the next day and hadn't begun to write it. Suddenly we get massive info-dumps about Michael Rappaport's crooked cop and evil podcaster Cinda Canning (Tina Fey) and her mousy assistant Poppy (Adina Verson), and while, like I said, I will always admire the chutzpah of a reveal carried off with the kind of panache we saw in the season finale, there was something hollow about it.

    That said, Short, Martin, and Gomez — TV's best trio — still gave me plenty of reasons to vibe with the show even when it frustrated me on a structural level. This season leaned a lot on notions of family — Oliver and his son; Charles and his daughter-figure (and his father); Bunny's loneliness — and I appreciated the way that the Arconia was expanded as a kind of living organism. How did you feel about the season's character work?

    Mark Blankenship: I guess we’re learning who has the bigger heart, because I found it infuriating. As you said, the character development often led nowhere, and I deeply resented the random arrival of, say, Andrea Martin as a love interest for Charles. By trying to be both a mystery series and a quirky dramedy, but failing to link those pieces together, the show became a half-hearted approximation of both.

    And to be clear: it wasn’t like this before. Last season Sting made a droll cameo as himself, and while that certainly allowed for some great one-off jokes, it also gave us more information about Tim Kono’s work and personal life. This year, Amy Schumer showed up for a few minutes to mug at the camera, and then vanished. Similarly, Mabel and Theo Dimas (James Caverly) were thrust into a startling crisis on Coney Island, and it led to absolutely nothing for their friendship. We never even saw Theo again.

    And I’ll tell you what else: I could happily go the rest of my life without seeing another show “cutely” remark on its own sloppy writing. This season, the Greek chorus of the podcast fan club was around to complain about how the new season of the podcast was going nowhere, and all of their comments were clearly winks at the audience that was presumably getting bored by the TV show spinning its wheels. That isn’t clever, and it doesn’t excuse shoddy work. It mostly reads like a shrug from a creative team that, as you said, is trying to get their book report done and can’t be bothered to put in the effort.

    Whew! Joe, I don’t think I’ve been this mad about a bad second season since NBC destroyed my beloved Up All Night.

    At the same time, I'll admit that I was mildly amused by the extended set-up for Season 3, which finds Oliver directing a Broadway play starring Charles and a surly actor played by Paul Rudd. I suspect I’ll watch, and I suspect I’ll be mad at myself for it. Do you think you’ll tune in?

    Joe Reid: Oh, I'll definitely be back. Here's the thing: this feels like a very typical sophomore slump. Only Murders was something of a surprise hit and definitely could have simply been a one-and-done season. In trying to extend its premise, its foundation got wobbly. These are things that can be fixed. I like the ambition of the year-ahead jump, the Paul Rudd of it all, and setting things inside a theater production: there's actually a lot of playing field to work with in season three. If the show's writing and producing team can map out a mystery with some sturdy bone structure to it, then I have a lot of confidence in this show's tremendous cast to carry out a third season that gets back to what we loved the first time around.

    Both seasons of Only Murders in the Building are available for streaming on Hulu.

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    TOPICS: Only Murders In The Building , Hulu, Amy Schumer, Jayne Houdyshell, Martin Short, Michael Rapaport, Selena Gomez, Steve Martin, Tina Fey