Few shows bring a smile to one’s face as consistently as Only Murders in the Building, and Steve Martin and John Hoffman’s half-hour murder-mystery comedy continues to succeed in that regard with its third season, which premieres on Aug. 8. Adding Meryl Streep and Paul Rudd to its cast, the Hulu hit once again weaves a tangled web of homicidal intrigue, and its characters and routine are now so well established that it can assuredly indulge in whatever whimsical flights it fancies. Nonetheless, if it remains one of television’s most amusing delights, familiarity is slowly creeping in, suggesting that, at the end of this whodunit, its heroes might want to hang it up while they’re still at the top of their sleuthing game.
Only Murders in the Building concluded last year’s run with a flash-forward to the opening night of Oliver Putnam’s (Martin Short) new Broadway play, Death Rattle, which was interrupted by the murder of its leading man, Ben Glenroy (Rudd). That’s where the show’s latest go-round picks up, albeit only after first introducing its other primary character, Loretta Durkin (Streep), whose passion for the stage was ignited at an early age and whose entire life has been devoted to making it on the Great White Way.
Alas, her dreams have only been partially realized via bit roles. Loretta longs to hear a director or casting professional exclaim, “Where have you been?” To her intense joy, she finally hears that question from Oliver following a stellar audition for the part of the nanny in his lavish murder-mystery production.
(Warning: Minor spoilers follow.)
Unfortunately for Loretta, Death Rattle appears doomed, thanks to Ben’s untimely fate, although his demise doesn’t play out precisely as planned. In the aftermath of his bloody collapse in front of a sold-out audience, things take a surprising twist, and naturally, at the center of it all are Oliver and his trusty partners in podcasting, Charles-Haden Savage (Martin) and Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez). Without breaking a sweat, a new case lands in their figurative laps, and it’s once again set in the trio’s beloved Arconia apartment building.
The suspects this time around, however, aren’t tenants but those involved with Death Rattle, and they include influencer Kimber (Ashley Park), Ben’s assistant brother Dickie (Jeremy Shamos), filmmaker Tobert (Jesse Williams)— who was filming Ben for a behind-the-scenes documentary—and Jonathan (Jason Veasey), the performer boyfriend of Howard (Michael Cyril Creighton), who’s now serving as Oliver’s right-hand man.
As before, Only Murders in the Building is overstuffed with characters and subplots, and those extend to the involvement of Death Rattle’s mother-son producing duo (Linda Emond and Wesley Taylor), whose means of showing each other affection grosses everyone else out, as well as three potential romances. The most expected of those comes courtesy of Charles and makeup artist Joy (Andrea Martin), who moves into his apartment with her giant fish tank in tow. Given that Charles’ last girlfriend Jan (Amy Ryan) turned out to be a killer, paramours are looked at with a wary eye during Season 3; Martin and Hoffman shrewdly play off past events to keep everything up in the air and everyone with a potential target on their back.
Somewhat disappointingly, podcasting takes a backseat in these 10 new episodes (eight of which were provided to press). While there’s intermittent talk about making a new season of their hit audio series, Charles, Oliver, and Mabel do more straightforward investigating than recording, which undercuts the material’s initial narrative and formal hook. Still, that proves to be a relatively minor alteration, as this story typically sticks to what works—beginning with the interplay between Gomez, Martin, and Short, the last of whom often steals the spotlight. Oliver is intent on making sure that his Broadway comeback is a hit—a task that requires simultaneously reinventing it without Ben and guaranteeing that none of his cast members are locked away for homicide—and Short delivers so many caustic zingers (often at Martin) that he single-handedly maintains the comedy’s must-watch status.
Rudd and Streep do much to enliven the proceedings, with the former managing to be charming despite embodying the off-putting Ben, and the latter showing off her singing chops and striking up a beguiling rapport with Short. It’s too bad that both disappear for significant stretches—especially in the case of Rudd, who’s predictably relegated to flashback duty—but they lend the action charisma and weight. With a more front-and-center role, Creighton turns out to be an excellent foil for Short, and Williams and Park thread the needle between being likable and suspicious. Unsurprisingly, more than a few faces from past outings make cameos, yet the focus is squarely on this core group, and they’re in tip-top form throughout.
Although it proceeds along the same sort of winding track as its predecessors, Only Murders in the Building feels most alive when it goes off the rails—such as with a recurring bit about a “patter song” (a fast and wordy Gilbert and Sullivan-style tune) that frustrates Charles to the point of sending him into a black-out state of disarray visualized as a “white room.”
Martin has long been one of the planet’s funniest people and sequences such as this afford him a prime opportunity to indulge his weirdest impulses and give the show a proverbial shot in the arm, sending it careening off in wacko directions. That’s also true of its banter, which is best when it’s being loopiest, as when Oliver scathingly shoots down Charles over a know-it-all lecture about the names of church sections, or Charles pronounces “meme” as “mem,” or Oliver refers to a rancid backstage area as smelling “like Jerry Orbach’s laundry basket.”
Intergenerational barbs, inside-baseball theater jokes, and droll absurdity are all key components of Only Murders in the Building, whose tale doesn’t deviate greatly from the path set out by its prior two seasons. That’s welcome news for fans, even if a subtle sense of having already been here and done this (replete with similar clues and red herrings) implies that maybe the formula is close to having run its course – and that Martin, Short and Gomez should take a bow before they’re unceremoniously compelled to leave the stage.
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