‘Only Murders in the Building’: Manhattan’s least likely crime-busting trio returns in style

NINA METZ
Chicago Tribune (TNS)

Back for a second season — and a second crime to solve — the success of Hulu’s cozy-funny-mournful whodunit “Only Murders in the Building” rests primarily on the shoulders of its three leads, and their blend of ruminative youth (Selena Gomez) and questionable life experience (Martin Short and Steve Martin) comes together once again to unravel yet another mystery.

But the draw this time out, for me at least, is the rich storyline of a side character named Bunny Folger. A cranky old so-and-so with white hair and big round glasses, she is the most hated person in the Arconia, the glorious abode where they all reside on Manhattan’s Upper West Side. She is also the latest murder in the building.

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The discovery of Bunny’s death-by-knitting needle was the cliffhanger that closed out Season 1, putting the crime-busting trio of Mabel (Gomez), Oliver (Short) and Charles (Martin) in the crosshairs of the police — and in the crosshairs of the real killer, for that matter. Season 2 picks up in the aftermath, when our amateur sleuths become persons of interest. After a brief interrogation, they exit the police station to a phalanx of media. “Oh my God!,” Mabel and Charles say, appalled. “Oh my God!,” Oliver says, thrilled.

And so it’s back to the Arconia, where they ramp up their true crime podcast for a new season. As possible suspects, they’re also the subjects of a competing podcast, the “Serial”-esque show with the insufferably smug host (Tina Fey) who goes full muckraker: “Oliver Putnam, the derelict theater director who almost killed 12 people with his last Broadway outing, has a long paper trail of Bunny hatred over the years,” she intones. “Tune in weekly as our investigation unfolds in real time.”

The pop culture satire extends to Charles’ old cop show, the one that once made him famous (and now a has-been) which is being rebooted. The catch: He’s been relegated to a supporting player. But at least there are actual writers on the job this time, “not just some executive producer high on cocaine screaming dialogue into a tape recorder.” (Mabel may get fewer opportunities for humor, but Gomez makes them count with a wonderfully deadpan way of delivering a line.)

An aspirational real estate fantasia — those massive apartments with all that wonderful wallpaper! — “Only Murders in the Building” mashes up high comedy and carefully observed human moments and Season 2 is a continuation, and deepening, of that. All three leads are aces at this, and the show is directed with a particular appreciation for Short’s symphony of facial expressions.

From left, Martin Short, Selena Gomez and Steve Martin in Season 2 of “Only Murders in the Building.” (Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu/TNS)

But the heart of this new season is the ecosystem of the building itself — and Bunny is at the center of that. (The actual building the Arconia is based on, called the Belnord, has its own strange and fascinating history.)

Bunny’s not just a plot device or an easy target for jokes, but a person with her own story, told in flashback in Episode 3 titled: “The Last Day of Bunny Folger.” She may be crabby but she’s also vulnerable. And pretty great, actually. She’s the kind of person who scolds the doorman and then tells him she hopes his wife’s knee feels better. The granddaughter of the Arconia’s architect, she’s probably its longest resident, which means she knows all about the building’s secret elevators and back passageways. A true creature of New York, she may not be nice but she’s kind — a distinction with a difference. It’s such a brilliant performance from Tony-winner Jayne Houdyshell, and it’s one I found unexpectedly moving.

After her death, her elderly mother Leonora arrives to take possession of a valuable painting hanging in Bunny’s bedroom, but it’s gone missing. The painting is described as “porny” in subject matter and of course Oliver is curious for more details: “Are we thinking full frontal? Bondage? Penetrata?” As it happens, the painting features none other than Charles’ father. How this information plays into the mystery of Bunny’s murder is a thread left dangling for much of the 10-episode season, which is as Byzantine in plot as those inner passageways that wind through the building itself.

Did I mention Leonora is played by Shirley MacLaine? Like her daughter, she’s barbed in temperament, with the same big round glasses and flair for eccentricity. “It’s strange returning to a place where you have so much history,” she says to Charles in a contemplative moment. “What was once a place of joy is now haunted — or maybe it only appears haunted, you just can’t see the ghosts until you’re close to being one yourself.” So much of the writing on this show gets you in the gut.

There are other familiar faces that make brief appearances — Amy Schumer (as herself), Michael Rapaport (as a police detective), Cara Delevingne (as an art world somebody) — but they are more distracting than additive. It’s the less starry names, from Houdyshell’s Bunny to Michael Cyril Creighton’s nerdy cat-loving neighbor, who are putting in the work, whereas the star drop-ins come across as little more than the stunt casting. Which is why I’m hoping showrunner John Hoffman was kidding when he said his dream casting for Season 3 included Harry Styles.

The show doesn’t need the tacky, desperate-seeming inclusion of celebrity cameos because it gets so many other details right. Like the small jokes about high-rise life (the existence of the good luggage cart and the one with the wonky wheel), or the wonderful score from composer Siddhartha Khosla, whose glorious theme song twirls and twirls like a spinning top.

There may be death on “Only Murders in the Building,” but there is also birth. Literal babies, I’m saying. If the circle of life sounds a tad sentimental, well, the show is that too. In all the right ways.

'ONLY MURDERS IN THE BUILDING'

3 stars (out of 4)

Rating: TV-MA

How to watch: Season 2 premiered Tuesday on Hulu, with new episodes released weekly