Headed into its third season, Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building doesn’t have much left to prove. The cheerful, zany murder mystery show’s first and second seasons earned near-unanimous praise, bolstered by the participation of comedy legends Steve Martin and Martin Short and pop star actor Selena Gomez. The plots were fun, the true crime satire was pointed, and the kooky energy of the crime-solving trio was contagious. Perhaps all of that set the show up to, if not fail, at least see a dip in quality over time. The latest, stage-set season of Only Murders has some good bits, but in the eight episodes available for review, it also has a slapdash quality to it that makes its jokes feel less sharp, and its mystery feels less, well, mysterious.
The new season picks up right where the last left off, with Mabel (Gomez) attending the opening of Oliver’s (Short) big Broadway play (in which Martin’s Charles has a part). It’s there that Paul Rudd’s Ben Glenroy, an egotistical and erratic actor, drops dead. Only that cliffhanger turned out to be a fakeout: in the premiere episode, he’s resurrected briefly, only to be killed off again in an even more outlandish way. That the group never gets into the potential trauma of having a guy’s corpse fall on them through an elevator is just one sign of future plot holes to come.
Only Murders in the Building season 3 has a pretty hit-or-miss relationship with reality. Its amateur sleuths have always been pretty bad at their jobs, but this time their detective work barely feels like an investigation. The show highlights Meryl Streep’s underrated actress Loretta as its main suspect in the very first scene, yet Charles, Oliver, and Mabel don’t so much as bat a suspicious eye in her direction until midway through the season – despite repeatedly noting that any cast member could be responsible from early on. A massive clue is dropped in episode 3, and while it seems obvious to audiences, characters don’t catch it. Weirder yet, the status of the titular podcast is left hazy for much of the season. At the same time, Oliver’s play – which soon balloons into a “Spiderman: Turn Off The Dark”-level disaster – also follows no logical path to the stage.
Basically, Only Murders in the Building plays fast and loose with its plots and characters this season, not so much artfully arranging the mystery elements on a chess board as playing a slapdash game of checkers with them. Red herrings feel more obvious, while entire arcs and characters seem rather transparently to exist only to get audiences to other arcs. In the past, this may have worked because the show made each and every character funny, but this time around, some characters aren’t flexing their comedy muscles much – including an oddly hammy Martin. Only Short seems able to elevate the series to true hilarity, which he thankfully does regularly. Whether Oliver is shouting nonsense stage directions (“The crab-men are breeding, breeding, breeding!”) or threatening to stab himself in the eye with a spoon, his artless prima donna character is as side-splitting as ever.
Oliver’s wacky, nonsensical play might be the best part of season 3. While the mystery plot feels both tired and underwritten (how many times can Mabel or Charles date someone who might be the killer?), Death Rattle – later given an even more outlandish title when it’s refashioned as a musical – is unlike anything I’ve seen before. It appears to be a murder mystery chamber play about a killing in a lighthouse that could’ve only been committed by a baby. The more we hear about Death Rattle, the more delightfully outlandish it gets. It’s unfortunate that the show’s true crime satire has all but fallen by the wayside this season, but if it’s in favor of some cutting theater satire, how much can we really complain?
What the season lacks in cohesion, it partly makes up for with excellent guest stars. Rudd’s performance as A-lister Ben Glenroy is obnoxious by design, but when a kinder, imagined version of him appears to speak to Mabel, the result is a surprisingly touching scene. Streep’s turn, too, is emotional. Her musical moments are indelible, and the season’s cold open, in which we see her entire failed career as an actor culminate in a moment when Oliver asks where she’s been all his life, achieves a level of poignancy the show has never strived for before. Jesse Williams’ turn as documentary cameraman Tobert (like Robert with a T) is also compelling, and a meta guest star appearance later in the season nearly steals the whole show.
It’s perfectly possible to watch Only Murders in the Building season 3 and see very little wrong with it, given that this show is the sort of low-engagement, low-key comfort watch that seems to make people happy by default. The show’s magic isn’t entirely gone; it just seems to be partly dormant in a season that’s more sloppily designed than its predecessors — a sin that’s all the more noticeable in a post-Poker Face world. It all begs the question: how many murders should we really try to fit in this building, anyway?
Only Murders in the Building season 3 is currently airing on Hulu. Watch the season 3 trailer here.