Steve Martin, Selena Gomez, and Martin Short recapture the magic, more or less, in the second season of Hulu’s comic murder-mystery.
When you take a bite of seven-layer dip — a recipe slightly more elaborate, though nonetheless desirable, than what Martin Short’s condiment-craving character, Oliver Putnam, constantly consumes throughout “Only Murders in the Building” — the desired outcome stems from simple addition: Each ingredient, or layer, compliments the next, combining to create a delicious treat, albeit one of such density to test the rigidity of any chip. While Oliver is happy to subsist on lighter toppings like Tzatziki and hummus, a seven-layer dip could reasonably be considered a meal (not a healthy one, mind you, but still a filling dish). And even if it’s not the main course, even if Tostitos-wielding noshers only consume a few scoops or hone in on two or three flavors — carving out the beans and guac, while avoiding the olives and onions — they’re typically content with the snack, considering its versatility, its depth, its wide-ranging appeal.
Comparing a professionally made, award-winning TV series like “Only Murders in the Building” to a quickly devoured party snack is reductive, I admit, but I promise not to stretch the metaphor as far as the series stretches Oliver’s savory infatuation. (Someone make the man a sandwich!) In Season 1, John Hoffman and Steve Martin’s genre mash-up hit on every level (layer?). Its comedy was cute, its mystery intriguing, its true crime commentary on point, its show-within-a-show charming, and its characters as endearing apart as they were crackling in collaboration. The show threw a lot of ingredients into the mix, and told a clean, clever story that brought them all together. A hit was born. Demand was raised. And Season 2 — premiering less than a year after the original’s debut — is here to feed those hungry Hulu subscribers.
It should do just that, even if the second course is a bit messier than the first. Jumping right into the next crime — the bloody death of Bunny (Jane Houdyshell), the Arconia’s overbearing board president who, in the Season 1 finale, wound up with a knitting needle in her chest — Season 2 speedily sets up its story, bouncing between red herrings and legitimate clues while cramming in lighter moments of levity, meta allusions galore, and personal revelations for our central trio of Oliver, Charles (Steve Martin), and Mabel (Selena Gomez). Early episodes are overstuffed and unbalanced. Questions stack up, and not just about the case. But the key ingredients are still there, and “Only Murders” Season 2 leans on them accordingly. While not the pièce de résistance sampled last year, this dip — perhaps cracking a few chips under the strain of its hefty portions — is still a welcome treat to enjoy, however you see fit.
okay, okay. No more food talk. No spoilers either. What can be said about Season 2 (through eight of the 10 episodes) is mostly what established fans already know, given how closely the writing staff tries to stick to the original formula. Picking up the same night as Bunny’s murder, our podcast hosts have become persons of interest… to the police. Mabel is a prime suspect, having been found in her apartment holding the victim’s body. Charles and Oliver are implicated as her friends, business partners, and first on the scene. Detective Williams (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) remains impatiently on their side of her, but she’s joined by Detective Kreps, a podcast-hating, Howard Stern-loving (“before he got gentrified”) investigator played by Michael Rapaport. They agree on one thing, though: Charles, Mabel, and Oliver cannot podcast about this case. The cops, not the suspects, should be looking for the killer.
Of course, that doesn’t sit well with Oliver, or anyone, really. After acquiring a taste for detective work, they can’t help but look into things, and just by living in the building, they stumble onto suspicious characters, including returning tenants like Uma (Jackie Hoffman) and Howard (Michael Cyril Creighton), previously unintroduced denizens like incoming board president Nina Lin (Christine Ko) and new celebrity penthouse-owner Amy Schumer (Amy Schumer), as well as newbies played by Cara Delevingne and Shirley MacLaine. (No, they are not playing themselves, a la Ms. Schumer and Mr. Sting. Their characters’ identities are just on the spoiler list, for some reason.)
Aside from who they can’t avoid, what our trio discovers is also right under their noses. The Arconia itself takes center stage via flashbacks and secrets, steadily expanding the significance of a location that’s proven integral to the series’ success — it’s “Only Murders in the Building,” after all. If murders are going to keep happening here, it needs a backstory. So why not spotlight the Upper West Side apartment complex along with the people it houses?
Production designer Patrick Howe and set decorator Rich Murray continue to thrive, choosing striking color combinations, dressing each scene with smart details, and constructing a labyrinthine old Arcadia you’ll love getting lost in. The same goes for costume designer Dana Covarrubias, who continues to expand Mabel’s aunt’s wardrobe with thoughtful flourishes, and the rest of the crafts team excels, despite a quick turnaround between seasons.
Craig Blankenhorn / Hulu
Only the plotting feels cluttered. A fresh mystery involving many of the same people, plenty of new faces, and set in the same location isn’t an easy thing to believably establish. It takes time. As a result, episodes shift focus quickly and leave threads dangling. Tracking the case week to week may be satisfying, but seen in chunks (I watched a few episodes at a time) can be exasperating. This investigation isn’t as steady or neat as the last.
Other alterations arise out of necessity. The thrill of discovering our three leads gives way to revisiting their favored traits (Charles’ love for his old TV show, “Brazzos,” Mabel’s meaningful relationships, Oliver’s dips). Supporting stars are written out to strengthen new arcs, while others are written in as a reminder of what worked before. The humor is heavily meta. Deferential jokes about how difficult it can be to make a successful sequel work to acknowledge the obvious bumpiness and, hopefully, excuse some of it.
All of these adjustments, both subtle and glaring, may grind on viewers seeking the same cozy experience they remember, but growing pains are part of the process in an ongoing series, and “Only Murders in the Building” still sports the simple joys of Steve Martin and Martin Short’s incredible skills. A quip here, a look there, and you light up. I’ll never get enough of their faux bickering or extended bits of bonding (typically over long-forgotten names, places, or scandals). Others may find the same satisfaction from Gomez’s dry, biting line deliveries, or the self-satisfied smile Short makes whenever he “nails” a line for the podcast. Then there’s the aforementioned sets and outfits, or the parade of famous faces passing through the Arcadia.
Tastes may vary, but that’s part of the beauty in such a hefty spread. There’s always something to savor.
“Only Murders in the Building” Season 2 premieres Tuesday, June 28 with two episodes on Hulu. New episodes will be released weekly.