Last year’s surprise streaming sensation “Only Murders in the Building” finds itself in a precarious position as it returns for a 10-episode second season, owing to the same creative hybridization that made its first season such a delight. The show is part cozy murder mystery, with multiple retirement-age sleuths investigating crimes that, while serious, aren’t depicted with an oppressively grim or gritty tone—which makes for a potentially easy route towards a long run. (Keep in mind that cozy mystery shows used to crank out two-dozen new plots per season, and “Murder, She Wrote” ran for 12 years.)
But the show is also part New York character comedy, exploring the inner lives of unlikely allies Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin), Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), and Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez), neighbors at an Upper West Side apartment building called the Arconia, who create a podcast out of their DIY murder investigation. So many TV shows create memorable characters, explore their backstories and growth over the course of a season, and have trouble recreating the magic when forced to mine those personalities further.
“Only Murders” Season 2 comes with built-in jokes about this. Charles, Oliver, and Mabel are making their own Season-2-within-the-Season-2 of their show-within-the-show, and feeling the pressure of following up their unexpected podcast hit. (There are even diehard fans of the podcast on hand to complain about wheel-spinning and other aspect of the show’s second season in a particularly meta bit.) Also adding to the pressure: the fact that they’re being framed for this season’s new murder.
As shown in last year’s cliffhanger, cranky Arconia board president Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell) has been stabbed to death in Mabel’s apartment, and while there isn’t enough direct evidence to actually charge any of our heroes with the crime, someone appears to be planting clues meant to implicate one or all of them.
No spoilers here, and not just because the ultimate resolution has been understandably held back from critics. (Eight of the season’s ten episodes were provided for review.) As with some other second seasons of other complicated and clever whodunnit narratives (“Veronica Mars” springs to mind), “Only Murders” gets a little knottier as it goes along, retaining plenty of suspects and side characters from the first season while adding the requisite new ones. The latter characters include Mabel’s new art-world pal Alice (Cara Delevinge), Bunny’s even-older mother (Shirley MacLaine), a cranky vulgarian of a cop (Michael Rapaport), and Amy Schumer playing herself, swapping in for last season’s Sting as the Arconia’s resident celeb, among others. This is a lot of traffic to direct while still attempting to maintain a fleet, comic pace.
So it’s all the more impressive that “Only Murders” still makes time for digressions, micro and macro. To the former, there are scenes like the one where Charles and Oliver excitedly expound at length about the Iran-Contra hearings; to the latter, one early-season episode takes time to follow Bunny on the last day of her life. The Bunny episode is there to offer clues and establish certain characters, yes, but it’s also an effective bit of New York City portraiture. The Season 1 practice of tapping other characters’ voices to narrate bits of different episodes remains, and Season 2 goes deeper into the fictional history of the Arconia. If this involves one plot-engine revelation that feels a bit broadly convenient to have escaped earlier notice, it’s hard to complain that snappy 32-minute episodes of a cozy comedy-mystery series are getting too ambitious.
Not every single element of the show reaches so far: Martin and Short are occasionally tasked with both plotlines and shtick that sometimes retread elements of the first season. (You don’t spend fifty-plus years as a comic actor honing an instinct for playing the hits.) Gomez’s performance as Mabel, though, continues to reveal hidden depths of frustration and youthful confusion while staying true to her deadpan affect. And despite other characters’ mounting suspicions over Mabel’s supposed propensity for snapping into a murderous rage, it’s not all serious: This season includes a scene that twists her role as resident young person of the trio, where Mabel, who occupies the Gen-Z/millennial border, is absolutely mystified by a torrent of slangy chatter from a younger, fully Gen-Z character.
The show wears these anxieties lightly, but well. While darker-hued noir mysteries tend to reveal the rot lurking beneath urban institutions, “Only Murders” takes a more humanist but no less rich approach, exposing the loneliness and thwarted dreams beneath the Arconia’s handsome architecture. A project that blends elements of “Seinfeld” and “Diagnosis Murder” sounds like a throwaway reference on a Tina Fey comedy (and Fey herself is on hand, to reprise her NPR-spoofing role from last season). Instead, it remains one of the best shows on television.
“Only Murders in the Building” Season 2 premieres on Hulu on June 28 with two episodes, followed by one new episode released weekly.