Season Three of “Only Murders in the Building” takes the Hulu series co-created by John Hoffman and Steve Martin to the venue it was practically built for: the theater. For a comedy-mystery series that has long flourished with jokes about art imitating life’s absurdities, “Only Murders in the Building” now has some razzle-dazzle from musical numbers by Benj Pasek and Justin Paul (“La La Land“), special guest performances from Meryl Streep and Paul Rudd, and a Broadway stage haunted with superstition.
But this season is also the most serious one yet: when it’s not teasing out some musical comedy, or packing in some fun surprises to its murder mystery, “Only Murders in the Building” faces the growing loneliness of our three favorite Arconia residents, Charles (Steve Martin), Mabel (Selena Gomez), and Oliver (Martin Short). Yes, they have podcast fame, and Oliver and Charles have minor celebrity days they can look back to. But after all this business with death, they want to feel seen, and loved, too. And as Oliver’s story deepens, “Only Murders in the Building” makes overtures about legacy and what people will remember you by long after you’ve moved out. Will you even make it to their off-hand anecdotes?
The first two episodes are a strong start, kicking off with its star power of new additions Rudd and Streep. As Arnoniacs may remember from last season, Rudd was seen at the end of episode ten sharing bitter words with co-star Charles-Haden Savage before a curtain goes up on “Death Rattle,” the Broadway production directed by Oliver Putnam. (The play is about a baby accused of murder, naturally.) And then Rudd’s character Ben Glenroy collapses on stage without a pulse.
“Only Murders in the Building” does get a juicy murder for its season, but that isn’t it—it’s quickly revealed at the play’s Opening Night party (what, you thought Oliver would cancel it?) that Ben is alive. He storms back into the party and addresses his fellow cast members, including social media influencer Kimber (Ashley Park), the handsome co-lead Ty (Gerald Caesar), his understudy Jonathan (Jason Veasey), the play’s nanny Loretta (Meryl Streep), and Charles. Ben really doesn’t like Charles.
Ben is truly (finally?) murdered not long after, in the Arconia, with a laugh-out-loud reaction from one of the apartment’s most expressive residents, Uma (Jackie Hoffman). But while the trio starts their investigation, this season is most of all about the heart—and heart rate—of Oliver. After getting a pan in-person from a critic (who tells him his mystery “just doesn’t sing”), the scarf-wearing theatrical titan has a heart attack. He then gets a heart-monitoring device, and advice that he needs to not stress. But the show must go on, so he reimagines “Death Rattle” as a tried-and-true musical, now with triplets. He falls for Loretta in the process, and “Only Murders in the Building” gets its true show-stopping moments when Short and Streep are flirting. Short successfully breaks Oliver’s character from his known sassiness in these moments and reveals a deep sensitivity.
Meanwhile, there’s always Charles, with his love of omelet-making and his kitchen art that says “NICE, HOT VEGETABLES.” Charles, still played with such graceful self-deprecation by Martin, once again finds himself in a relationship in which his happiness is uncertain. It feels like a repeated emotional note, but Martin doesn’t hollow out the character. And as this series nudges with a comical motif about a blank white room—with a smiling Martin dressed in the color, an ebullient smile on his face—maybe he likes being solo.
Mabel remains the story’s greatest emotional enigma, with a sudden but forgotten reveal that her time in the Arconia is winding down (her aunt is selling the lavish place she’s been staying in). She’s the most hypervigilant of the three, even when she starts to hang with a documentarian named Tobert (Jesse Williams). Gomez is still compelling in a role that doesn’t wrestle with ego, but her comfort with other people. The legacy of Bloody Mabel from Season Two haunts “Only Murders in the Building,” as that was the last time this show made more of an effort to make Gomez’s talents central to the story.
This season’s writing is sound in a way that shouldn’t surprise anyone. Of course, it is; that’s how the show has been designed with its playful misdirections of motive and shocking moments quickly turned into a joke. “Only Murders in the Building” has a standard for writing and cleverness that’s simply higher than so many other productions. And the production design continues to be top-notch, with apartments that capture the soul of their inhabitants, like Oliver’s makeshift gaudy theater of a living room or the cramped square that Loretta lives in, her bed folding out from a wall.
Such a reliably amusing season is then spiked with ideas about theaters and ghosts, both emotional and possibly literal. There could be more commitment to the series’ flights of musical fancy (as with a random Fosse-inspired number), but it’s at least in the air.
It’s perhaps revealing of this season’s problems that it can’t get many great jokes out of casting Paul Rudd in such a role. Yes, Rudd is charming as a disarming star who can make numerous jokes about how he’s endearing even when he’s possibly the worst person in the room. But that Rudd is a perfect choice for Ben Glenroy is more about the joke that has been made plenty of times before about how lovable he is—including a 2016 Bud Light commercial with the punchline “Everybody Loves Paul Rudd.” Even though Rudd’s obnoxiousness made me laugh a few times (boasting about his big movie franchise, “CoBro”), “Only Murders in the Building” raises the same nagging question when hearing him voice a gecko-bro in the recent “Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles: Mutant Mayhem”: Rudd’s face may not age (there are jokes here about that too) but maybe his persona shtick has expired?
There’s more rewarding fun to be found in the presence of Meryl Streep. Her struggling, lonely actor Loretta appears in select episodes, sometimes channeling her immediate Streep prowess (switching overwrought accents during a read-through) or playing against it, like when she shivers with uncertainty when it’s her time in the spotlight. There is a meaningful wink in her casting, of seeing the legendary Streep as an avatar for all those who wanted to follow in her footsteps. But Streep is here to be more than a glorified cameo, and some of the show’s most impactful moments come from her innate on-screen magic.
There are just certain parts of the entertainment experience missing in Season Three, which is strange to say given how much fun its wacky musical numbers can be. Mostly by its own design, it’s just not as funny, and it’s not heartbreaking as its reflection-heavy mood wants to be. As Oliver and Charles well know, not every passion project can be a hit.
Eight episodes of Season Three were screened for review. The first two episodes of Season Three of “Only Murders in the Building” are now playing on Hulu, with a new episode each week.