This review contains spoilers.
I watched the first season of “Only Murders in the Building” in 2021 to impress a girl. She had raved about the magnetic charisma of the cast and the addicting plot. The harrowing twists and turns of Steve Martin and John Hoffman’s nostalgic murder mystery comedy provided me with ample material for enthused discussion; the plan was playing out flawlessly. However, as the first season proceeded, I found myself watching more for Martin Short’s witty one-liners and Selena Gomez’s hilarious sass than for the sake of my brilliant strategy. When the second season was released, concluding on Aug. 23, I was immersed again in the lovable, feel-good comedy with a murderous twist.
The brilliance of “Only Murders” lies in its relatively specific target audience and extremely minimal barrier to entry. Exemplified by the title sequence font and branding style nearly identical to that of The New Yorker, “Only Murders” seeks to charm its middle-aged, liberal viewership with sophisticated, but vulgar, comedy and understated social commentary. The show also keeps its New York theater flair, like when Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) responds to a question from law enforcement by saying, “I know what perjury is. I once directed a production of ‘12 Angry Men.” These choices certainly seek to provide points of identification between their characters and the audience, as the leads are dramatized to increase entertainment while maintaining realism.
Another memorable facet of the murder mystery lies in its “show within a show” format. The entire plot centers around the compilation of a podcast detailing several murders which have taken place in the apartment building of the protagonists. This structure is intrinsic to the show’s narrative, as, in nearly every episode, a line or two is repeated because one of the trio forgets to turn on their voice memo app. This blundering chaos is a common thread throughout the 10-episode season, and the amateur nature of our protagonists’ endeavors makes them evermore endearing and relatable.
However, as much as “Only Murders” is delightfully irreverent and its characters are remarkably imperfect, the relationships are genuine. Parenthood is a sincere and repeated topic throughout the season’s run. While the first season focused more on somewhat superficial aspects of relationships, such as strained romantic partnerships and financial social norms between parents and their children, season two addresses significant familial problems. Between Putnam’s difficult relationship with his now-adult son after learning he’s not the father, Charles Haden-Savage’s (Steve Martin) lifelong trauma with his unfaithful father and his subsequent estrangement with his own daughter, fatherhood is at the forefront of the season’s ethos.
Additionally, mental health is a compelling focus of the season. In one particularly striking moment, a side character recommends Haden-Savage to “charge rent to the people inside of [his] head.” In season one, the topic was briefly addressed, but not delved into as deeply as in this season. While not overtly diagnostic nor preachy, the show subtly encourages its community to work through individual traumas with intentional improvement and friendship. In the case of Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez), the discussion goes beyond interpersonal relationships and begins to delve into post-traumatic stress, a puzzle that she’s refused to solve for years. Mora’s betterment begins with the realization that in order to move past her trauma, she needs to start putting the pieces together.
The comedy of “Only Murders in the Building” is only half funny. While occasionally offering truly clever moments, such as when an officer begins belting broadway tunes in response to Putnam’s patronizing assumption of ignorance, (“Like I don’t f—ing know ‘Chorus Line’”), more often, the writing is meant to elicit a smile and eye roll rather than unstoppable laughter. This choice of comedic prioritization seems purposeful, as a general sense of the leads’ whimsy is more effective than constant bids for hilarity. However, on occasion, the stylistic comedic choices can get in the way of the plot’s realism, like when Putnam pauses his pursuit of a brutal killer to keep some of his favorite vegetable dip. Generally, the humor serves the show’s understated tone.
“Only Murders in the Building,” much like Rian Johnson’s 2019 movie “Knives Out,” plays largely like a game of Clue. This format allows for consistent revelations and growth among the leads. And, at the same time, it allows the side characters to fit their role without devoting excess screen time to insignificant details, as one would while investigating a simulated murder probe.
More than anything, “Only Murders” is an enjoyable watch. Never demanding more emotional and narrative effort from its audience than warranted, the show manages to keep a viewer on the edge of their seat with the absolute assurance that everything will turn out okay in the end.
I may have initially used “Only Murders in the Building” to entice a love interest, but I stayed for the brilliant production. Through the percolating release of relevant information, the writers show unrelated and different people become as enamored with each other as we are of them. “Only Murders” manages to insist that people will find humanity in each other regardless of background and, really, isn’t that love?