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Only Murders in the Building Rebounds From Its Sophomore Slump

The Hulu show rediscovers the fun of Season 1 with a trip to Broadway.
  • Meryl Streep and Martin Short in Only Murders in the Building (Photo: Patrick Harbron/Hulu)
    Meryl Streep and Martin Short in Only Murders in the Building (Photo: Patrick Harbron/Hulu)

    What's better than a good, old-fashioned mystery? If you're the team behind Hulu's Only Murders in the Building, which returns for its third season on August 8, the answer to that is simple: a musical murder mystery. Just as the first season of the show had viewers playing along with amateur sleuths/podcasters Mabel (Selena Gomez), Charles (Steve Martin), and Oliver (Martin Short) on the trail of who killed Tim Kono, the third season seems likely to have those same viewers humming along to "Which of the Pickwick Triplets Did It?" The folks behind Only Murders are gambling that their audience will appreciate the dive into the Broadway milieu, but at the very least the show is taking a confident step away from the flabby rehashings of Season 2.

    Only Murders experienced a textbook sophomore slump in its second season, but at least it left off on a tantalizing cliffhanger: After flashing forward one year, opening night of Oliver's new play was marred by leading man Ben Glenroy (Paul Rudd) dropping dead on stage.

    The series picks up exactly where it left off, with Rudd and Meryl Streep as the buzzy cast additions. Splashy guest stars haven't always paid off on this show. In Season 2, their appearances were either gratuitous (Amy Schumer) or too brief (Shirley MacLaine). Streep can sometimes be an overfussy distraction, as she was on the misbegotten second season of Big Little Lies. But here, she's a funny, beguiling, and prominent addition to the cast, and just one of the reasons the show is bouncing back after a year in the wilderness.

    Season 3 quickly makes up for last season’s distinct lack of inspiration. By setting the new murder mystery amid the production of Oliver's latest stage venture, the show has a new playground to explore, as it did so successfully with the Arconia in Season 1. But there are still opportunities for Mabel, Charles, and Oliver to go snooping around their home base. Ben Glenroy is the ideal murder victim, having made enemies throughout Oliver's production of Death Rattle (a play that appears to be about a murderous infant). The suspects are myriad, and they're all under one roof. Only Murders has regained its equilibrium.

    The trip downtown to the theater district is an invigorating one. With as much creativity and zeal as showrunner John Hoffman and his talented team of writers mustered to send up the world of crusty uptown wealth, the show jumps enthusiastically into the cloistered environs of Broadway (even as the theater scenes have been filmed in Washington Heights' gorgeously refurbished United Palace theater). It proves to be a very good fit — this has always been Oliver's world, so entering it feels like the show following its muse to the next logical stop in Manhattan. The writing is also sharp and wickedly funny about this corner of the world.

    The guest cast for Season 3 acts as a kind of shibboleth to theater-attuned audiences to let them know they're in good hands. Streep and Rudd — the latter appears throughout the season in flashbacks — are the bait on the hook for the mainstream audience. True theater nerds will save their squealing for the likes of Ashley Park (Mean Girls), Jeremy Shamos (Clybourne Park), and Noma Dumezweni (Harry Potter and the Cursed Child). Given that this show has already featured the likes of Jayne Houdyshell, Nathan Lane, Jackie Hoffman, and Andrea Martin, it's no surprise that the casting department has such a good eye for theater talent. By the time Linda Emond (Cabaret) and Wesley Taylor (Spongebob Squarepants, The Broadway Musical) show up as a mother and son producing team, the Broadway fans in the audience should be firmly in IYKYK territory.

    On other shows, this kind of in-joking might become oppressive. But Hoffman and his team have always done a great job making the esoteric accessible. No matter how arched the eyebrow was, the material about the Arconia and its uptown inhabitants always had an outsider's perspective in mind. You didn't have to be able to afford the rent in one of these buildings to appreciate the jokes made at their expense. You don't need to know that Emond and Taylor's characters are a winking nod to theater producers Daryl and Jordan Roth to appreciate their over-the-top characterizations. But those plugged into the theater scene — the ones who laugh a little bit louder at a joke about Marc Platt — will definitely get to appreciate this season on a deeper level.

    After struggling to find ways for Mabel, Oliver, and Charles to organically resume their podcasting venture in Season 2, Hoffman and company have decided to just bake that entropy into the show itself. Mabel finds a silver lining in Ben’s untimely demise: She can get the band or "murder podcast" back together. She’s been missing her septuagenarian besties, and since she'll soon be moving out of the Arconia, a murder investigation could help keep the three of them from drifting apart. But inevitably, our three protagonists are pulled in different directions.

    When Oliver decides to re-mount the doomed Death Rattle as a musical in the wake of Ben's death, he and Charles have their attentions divided. Mabel does a lot of the investigating solo, which defeats the purpose of the get-the-band-back-together idea. Ultimately, she finds a kindred investigator in a documentarian played by Jesse Williams, an actor far too handsome for the show to pass up the opportunity to place his character and Mabel on the course to something romantic.

    Oliver finds himself entangled with Loretta (Streep), a woman who's waited her whole life to be discovered in an audition. Streep plays Loretta with a lot of sensitivity, picking her moments to let the actress-y quirks peek through. There's a moment during the first table read when Streep sends up her own reputation for accent work that acts as a tremendously funny ice-breaker for the character. Loretta's zeal for her big break is, of course, reason enough to suspect her of murder, which gets even more complicated when we realize there's a spark of romance between her and Oliver.

    Then there's Charles, whose acrimonious relationship with Ben was teased in the previous season's finale, as was his burgeoning relationship with makeup lady Joy (Andrea Martin). Both get explored in more detail, giving Martin ample excuse to play up Charles' many anxieties. And that's before we even get into his having to learn an impossibly rat-tat-tat patter song for the musical.

    While this season of Only Murders never quite bursts into a full-blown musical, the songs from Oliver's new musical are consistent highlights. They ought to be, considering the talent behind them. The award-winning songwriting team of Justin Paul and Benj Pasek (La La Land; Dear Evan Hansen) were brought on to craft the songs, and on each one they've partnered with a different musical-theater talent. Sara Bareilles (Waitress) co-wrote one of the songs for Streep's character, as did Michael R. Jackson (A Strange Loop). Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman joined Pasek and Paul to devise Charles' daunting patter song, a ditty that will take up residence in your brain for the foreseeable future.

    These songs help re-energize Only Murders in its third season. The murder mystery, while never quite recapturing the magic of the Tim Kono investigation, maintains a forward momentum, setting up suspects and knocking them down. The fraying bonds between Mabel, Charles, and Oliver have real stakes. The guest stars really connect with the material. Only Murders, with some pep in its step and a song in its heart, is fun again. Good, murderous fun.

    Only Murders in the Building Season 3 premieres August 8th with two episodes on Hulu; new episodes drop every Tuesday. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Only Murders In The Building , Andrea Martin, Ashley Park, Jesse Williams, Linda Emond, Martin Short, Meryl Streep, Paul Rudd, Selena Gomez, Steve Martin