The first season of Only Murders in the Building was one of the best shows of last year. Funny, warm and with a new take on the mystery genre it was unpredictable and absolutely delightful.
For those who need a refresher, the series follows Charles (Steve Martin), Oliver (Martin Short) and Mabel (Selena Gomez) an unlikely trio who form a bond when someone is found dead in their building. Their mutual love of true-crime podcasts leads to them investigating the murder and producing their own podcast which gains traction across the first season.
Long-time collaborators Martin and Short (that’s confusing, Steve Martin and Martin Short ha!) have inbuilt chemistry and miraculously Selna Gomez fits in perfectly. Her dry, no-nonsense delivery perfectly balances with her older stars. It’s clear the trio have a great deal of respect and love for each other. Charles and Oliver see Mabel as their cool friend and as much as she dismisses them, she’ll always be there when there’s a twist in the case. They are family. Charles is desperately hanging onto his past life as TV cop Brazzos and has little else going on. On the surface at least, you’d believe Oliver has the most interesting life of the lot. But beneath the over-exaggerated anecdotes about his countless celebrity encounters, he’s a man who deep down, knows his glamourous past is behind him and he’s just about clinging on to the small family he has outside the building. Mabel’s backstory is far darker. As a close friend of the victim in the first season, she’s struggling with grief and a sense that murder follows her around.
I would have been happy for the first season to be a madcap caper following this hapless trio as they stumbled around their swanky Manhattan apartment complex, the Arconia uncovering clues to the murder, and whilst the for the most part that’s what the first season was, it was also far smarter than its central premise, several steps ahead of the audience and unafraid to try something different. The episode told entirely from the perspective of a deaf character was brave and brilliantly executed. The resolution to the whodunnit was satisfying and cleverly, they’d built a story for a second season without us even realising.
Season one begins with Charles and Oliver desperately trying to find Mabel when they receive a message telling them to ‘get out of the building now.’ When they reach her they find her covered in blood. “It’s not what you think”. The series ends back at that point with Mabel rolling the body to reveal the victim is longtime tenant board president Bunny (Jayne Houdyshell). It’s yet another clever twist that justifies the second season and puts our central trio as prime suspects in her murder.
The second season picks up from there. Charles notes they have a rare opportunity to do a direct sequel to the original crime, where most true-crime podcasts “move on to a new case that never hits like the original.” The podcast’s superfans, constantly following their heroes, debate whether the show-within-the-show has gone downhill, and there’s competition from the main trio’s former hero, celebrity podcaster Cinda Canning (Tina Fey) who is out to ruin them with a rival podcast called Only Murderers in the Building.
Once again, the central mystery is intriguing, and the chemistry between the three is somehow even better than it was in that near-perfect first season but this second one feels baggy and a little less focused.
As they did in the first season, each of the three have stories outside the mystery or podcast recording. Mabel’s centres around Alice, a British artist (Cara Delevingne) who finds Mabel online after she’s labelled “bloody Mabel”. It’s clear from the off, that the pair are being set up for a romance, but I didn’t really feel like they had any chemistry and the connection feels off. Delevingne is one of two prominent guest stars who don’t quite work. The other being Amy Schumer. I’ve never been a fan but here she really grated on me.
She plays an exaggerated version of herself who Oliver meets in the infamous elevator. She has moved into Sting’s apartment (Sting’s appearance in the first season was one was a low point in an otherwise perfect first outing). She’s clearly having a lot of fun but it’s a performance that doesn’t feel believable at any point.
It’s the side stories that drag that even, this early on in the run, seem destined to bring the season down. Bunny’s murder sees Charles examining his childhood and his relationship with the father he thought he idolised. His fame brought on by the unexpected success of the podcast leads the producers of a Brazzos reboot to reach out. They openly admit they assumed he was dead! Unlike last year, all of these subplots, at least early on in the series, feel like afterthoughts. There are threads later on, like Charles reconciling with his estranged daughter and Oliver trying to keep his relationship with his son together that feel more akin to the show I fell in love with but whenever the guest stars on the screen the series loses a lot of the magic.
Smartly though we’re never far away from Charles, Oliver and Mabel as they disobey police instructions to live their lives and stay out of Bunny’s murder. The truth is they haven’t got lives to live and solving these crimes gives them purpose. The series also cleverly utilises the residents of the Arconia making it feel perhaps more of an ensemble piece than it was in its first season. The building, which is always a looming presence delivers early secrets some of which work better than others. Later episodes are narrated by different characters which all work effectively but also take the spotlight over the trio we love spendng time with. This shift in focus means the podcasting element of the show has to take a backseat. Each episode opens with a podcast title but the actual making of the podcast is less important. This is partly down to someone trying to implicate the podcasters in Bunny’s murder.
The first season threw so many balls in the air but they were caught effortlessly. It was able to function as much as a mystery parody as it was the real thing. Much of its success came from the lazor-focused scripts. They had to be as interested in the suspects of the murder and building intrigue and suspense as they were with the backstories of the leads. For the most that is still very much on display here, but the plot doesn’t feel as dense. None of the new characters feel fleshed out or that belong in the world. Cara Delevingne’s Alice is clearly going to be implicated in the wider mystery but she’s not given an awful lot to do and in a world populated by big and colourful characters she feels very one-note and miscast.
The truth is, for all my nitpicking, Only Murders in the Building is still a fun watch unlike anything else on television. It knows what its strengths are and when it leans into them it works superbly. I have every confidence that all my misgivings will melt away. I do thoroughly enjoy my time with Oliver, Charles and Mabel and the wider world of the Arconia and the show has primed me to expect the unexpected and to be taken on a journey. I’m happy to go along for the ride.
Only Murders in the Building begins Tuesday 28th June on Disney+