“Only Murders in the Building” Season 2: As Good as S1
Back for a second season – and a second crime to solve – the success of Hulu’s cozy-funny-gloomy whodunit “Only Murders in the Building” rests mostly on the shoulders of its three leads and their mix of ruminating youth (Selena Gomez) and a dubious life experiment (Martin Short and Steve Martin) reunite once again to unravel another mystery.
But the draw this time around, at least for me, is the rich story of a secondary character named Bunny Folger. A grumpy old man with white hair and big round glasses, she is the most hated person in Arconia, the glorious mansion where they all reside on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She is also the last kill in the building.
The discovery of Bunny’s knitting needle was the cliffhanger that closed season 1, putting the crime-fighting trio of Mabel (Gomez), Oliver (Short) and Charles (Martin) in the crosshairs of the police – and in the real killer’s crosshairs, by the way. Season 2 picks up right after, when our amateur sleuths become persons of interest. After a brief interrogation, they walk out of the police station towards a phalanx of media. “Oh my God!” Mabel and Charles say in dismay. “Oh my God!”, says Oliver, happy.
And so it’s back to the Arconia, where they’re ramping up their true crime podcast for a new season. As possible suspects, they’re also the subject of a competing podcast, the “Serial” show with the insufferably smug host (Tina Fey) ranting: “Oliver Putnam, the abandoned theater manager who almost killed 12 people with his last Broadway outing, has a long paper trail of hating Bunny over the years,” she intones. “Tune in weekly as our investigation unfolds in real time.”
The pop culture satire extends to Charles’ old crime show, the one that made him famous (and now a has-been) which is being rebooted. The catch: he was relegated as a support player. But at least there are real writers at work this time, “not just an executive producer on cocaine screaming dialogue into a tape recorder.” (Mabel may have fewer humorous opportunities, but Gomez makes them count with a wonderfully deadpan way of delivering a line.)
An ambitious real estate fantasy – those massive apartments with all that gorgeous wallpaper! – “Only Murders in the Building” mixes great comedy and carefully observed human moments and Season 2 is a continuation and deepening of that. All three leads are aces at it, and the show is run with special appreciation for Short’s symphony of facial expressions.
But the heart of this new season is the building ecosystem itself – and Bunny is central to that. (The building on which the Arconia rests, called the Belnord, has its own strange and fascinating history.)
Bunny is not just a plot or easy target for jokes, but a person with her own story, told in flashback in episode 3 titled: “Bunny Folger’s Last Day”. She may be grumpy but she’s also vulnerable. And pretty awesome, actually. She’s the kind of person who scolds the doorman and then tells him she hopes his wife’s knee is better. Granddaughter of the Arconia’s architect, she’s probably its oldest resident, which means she knows all about the building’s secret elevators and back passages. A true New York creature, she may not be nice but she is nice – a distinction with a difference. It’s such a brilliant performance from Tony winner Jayne Houdyshell, and it’s one that I found unexpectedly moving.
After his death, his elderly mother Leonora arrives to take possession of a valuable painting that hangs in Bunny’s room, but it has disappeared. The painting is described as “porn” in its subject matter and of course Oliver is curious for more details: “Are we thinking frontally? Slavery? Penetrata? The painting happens to depict none other than Charles’s father. How this information plays into Bunny’s murder mystery is a thread left hanging for much of the 10-episode season, which is as Byzantine in plot as those interior passageways that wind through the building itself. same.
Did I mention that Leonora is played by Shirley MacLaine? Like her daughter, she has a barbed temper, with the same big round glasses and the same sense of eccentricity. “It’s strange to go back to a place where you have so much history,” she told Charles in a moment of contemplation. “What was once a place of joy is now haunted – or maybe it just seems haunted, you just can’t see ghosts until you’re about to be one yourself. -same.” Much of the writing on this show gets you in the gut.
There are other familiar faces who make brief appearances – Amy Schumer (as herself), Michael Rapaport (as a police detective), Cara Delevingne (as a person from the art world) – but they are more entertaining than additive. It’s the less starred names, from Houdyshell’s Bunny to Michael’s nerdy cat-loving neighbor Cyril Creighton, who get the job done, while the stars are little more than the stunt cast. Which is why I hope showrunner John Hoffman was joking when he said his dream cast for Season 3 included Harry Styles.
The show doesn’t need the tacky, desperate inclusion of celebrity cameos, as it has plenty of other details. Like the little jokes about life in skyscrapers (the existence of the right luggage cart and the one with the wobbly wheel), or composer Siddhartha Khosla’s wonderful score, whose glorious theme song twirls and spins like a top.
There may be death on “Only Murders in the Building”, but there is also birth. Literal babies, I say. If the Circle of Life seems a bit sentimental, well, so is the show. In all the right ways.
“Only Murders in the Building” – 3 stars (out of 4)
Where to watch: Hulu
Nina Metz is a critic at the Tribune
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