Five out of Five stars
The second season of a hit TV series can be tricky, especially when the first one was a bolt-from-the-blue sensation that beguiled and delighted anyone who watched it, and ended up on every critic’s best-of-the-year list.
The brains behind comedy-mystery Only Murders in the Building (Star on Disney+), co-creators Steve Martin — who plays faded former TV star Charles-Haden Savage — and John Hoffman, know only too well about the weight of expectations.
Consequently, the first couple of episodes lob in plenty of self-aware gags that reference both the inherent absurdity of the premise (multiple unrelated murders taking place in the same high-end NYC apartment building) and the danger that lightning won’t strike twice.
The Arconia Building’s newest tenant, Amy Schumer — who, like last year’s guest star Sting, plays a comedically exaggerated version of herself — asks Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) if he, Charles and the third member of the team, Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez), will be making another season of the titular podcast.
“Well, second seasons are tough, you know,” says Oliver, “but people keep dying, so I suppose there’s always a chance.” Later, Charles observes that second seasons of true-crime podcasts rarely work. “They usually move on to a new case that never hits like the original,” he says.
There’s no danger of that happening here. I’ve watched six of the 10 episodes — although for review purposes, I’ll stick to the two currently available — and Only Murders is every bit as wonderful in its second outing as it was in its first.
It picks up in the aftermath of last season’s cliffhanger when Mabel was found kneeling over the dead body of cranky Arconia board president Bunny Fogler (Jayne Houdyshell). Mabel’s clothes were covered with blood and one of her knitting needles protruded from Bunny’s chest.
Our three heroes are carted off to the police station, which delivers an early highlight: an interrogation scene featuring the deadpan Mabel running rings around a foul-mouthed, dumb-as-a-rock detective called Kreps, a new character played by Michael Rapaport.
To the exasperation of his far cleverer partner Detective Williams (the returning Da’Vine Joy Randolph), Kleps blurts out that the murder weapon was a knife, not the knitting needle, and that it hasn’t yet been found. The cops have no choice but to let the trio go.
When photos of the blood-soaked Mabel go viral, earning her the nickname Bloody Mabel, and smarmy, nasty true-crime podcast queen Cinda Canning (Tina Fey) attacks them in a podcast of her own called Only Murderers in the Building, they decide the only way to redeem themselves is to mount their own investigation — and of course to record a podcast about it as they go along.
This leads them down a rabbit hole involving a hidden elevator at the rear of Bunny’s wardrobe, secret tunnels that run through the building, Bunny’s dying words, which were “fourteen” and, to Charles’s discomfort, “savage”, and an erotic painting worth a million dollars, for which Charles’s late father was one of the nude models, that keeps disappearing and reappearing with alarming regularity.
New additions to the cast include Cara Delevingne as a shifty gallery owner who becomes a love interest for Mabel, and Shirley MacLaine, at her Shirley MacLaine-iest, as Bunny’s half-blind mother Lenora, who’s not as dotty as she pretends to be. Either could, of course, be the killer, as could anyone outside of the three leads.
There’s also a subplot in which Charles is invited to sign up for a reboot of his hit 90s detective show Brazzos. First he’s delighted, then he’s crushed when he learns the character is being reimagined as a young Black woman and that he’s being offered the lesser role of her uncle.
This season’s mystery is more expansive — a good thing, because it gives extra room to delve into the sadness and loneliness lurking inside Charles, Oliver and Mabel, and to explore in more detail the stories of the other richly-drawn residents of the Arconia.
From the start, Only Murders in the Building stood out as a generous series with a lot of heart.
It’s beating more joyously than ever second time around.