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‘Only Murders in the Building’ Review: Meryl Streep Joins a Third Season That’s Heavy on Melancholy, Light on Laughs

If you’ve heard me rant about this once, you’ve heard me rant about it a thousand times: Emmy categorizations are nonsense. Several of the year’s most nominated dramas — The White Lotus, Succession, Bad Sisters, among others — are, to me, absolutely satires with dramatic undertones. And several of the year’s most nominated comedies — Barry, The Bear, Ted Lasso, among others — are arguably closer to dramas, at least in their more recent seasons.

That’s the thing: Barry and Ted Lasso both decided, as they neared the end of their respective stories, that they were more driven by emotion than punchlines. The Bear didn’t exactly make a shift so much as Emmy voters found the show, with its 30-minute episode runtimes, easier to process as a comedy.

Only Murders in the Building

The Bottom Line A profound meditation on loneliness compensates for weak comedy.

I don’t know that I would say that the third season of Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building is exactly a drama, and I definitely wouldn’t say that it represents a notable shift for a series that has death and its attendant sadness baked into its very title.

What I would say, though, is that the first eight episodes of the new season work most successfully as an occasionally somber meditation on the loneliness you can feel even if you’re in one of the most populated cities in the world, reside in a crowded apartment complex and are part of a found family that is a theater troupe. That’s always been an element of the series, but in a delicate balance.

Go back to the first season, with its effectively constructed mystery and fizzy Shouts & Murmurs comic sensibility, and the angst came across as a valuable supporting player. In season three, the angst has to take on the leading role because the comedy is an ungainly mixture of desperate callbacks and inconsistent insider-baseball theater jabs and the mystery is only limitedly involving.

When we left things, Oliver Putnam (Martin Short) was directing a Broadway revival of a play that just so happened to be a murder mystery when, on opening night, his leading man (Paul Rudd’s Ben) died on-stage. Is the killer part of the cast? Perhaps social media influencer Kimber (Ashley Park) or understudy Jonathan (Jason Veasey), boyfriend to Oliver’s assistant, Howard (Michael Cyril Creighton)? How about Loretta (Meryl Streep), a long-struggling actress whose late-career big break was jeopardized by spats with Ben? How about co-star Charles (Steve Martin), elevated out of near-retirement by the success of the previous seasons’ murder podcasts, or his girlfriend Joy (Andrea Martin)?

With Oliver fixated on resurrecting his now-stalled play, whatever the cost, and Charles facing anxiety about both his new relationship and the pressures of live theater, might it be up to Mabel (Selena Gomez) to solve the mystery herself? Or might Mabel have her own distractions in the form of personal insecurities and a flirtation with Tobert (Jesse Williams), a documentarian who was making a film about Ben at the time of his death?

In familiar Agatha Christie fashion, Ben was such a jerk that the list of suspects is long — so long that each episode basically focuses on a single suspect, sometimes accompanied by that suspect’s voiceover narration in a way that, more often than it should, evokes similarities to Apple TV+’s The Afterparty. The structure guarantees that if an episode starts with one suspect, they’ll be revealed as a red herring within 38 minutes. It’s tough to invest much interest in Ben’s life or death, despite Rudd’s game efforts in the latest variation on a movie star good-naturedly playing a version of themselves on television. The comic murder mystery has been in recent vogue and, like the strained second season of The Afterparty, Only Murders in the Building is at the point of confirming that even the freshest pieces of genre revision aren’t always built to last.

The comic side of Only Murders is — oddly given the pedigree of the cast — showing the most strain. Continuing a trend that was somewhat evident in the second season as well, jokes in the new season tend to be based not on new targets but on references to things that were joked about previously. So it isn’t exactly funny that Charles begins to wonder if Joy might be the killer so much as it’s funny that this is the second time in the series that Charles has begun to wonder if his girlfriend might be a killer. And perhaps because Charles and Oliver have run out of specific things to be luddites about, Mabel is stuck making jokes concerning all the jokes she’s made in the past about the age discrepancy in their podcasting trio. And when it comes to the gentle ribbing directed at the Broadway community, it boils down to chuckling about theater terminology, a lot of references — Oliver’s references will always be endearingly random — and some confusing implausibilities that fit jarringly with the attempts at accuracy.

If the new season isn’t as funny as it should be — don’t get me started on various characters brought back from earlier seasons with diminishing returns — and it isn’t as mysterious as it could be, why is it still entertaining enough for a tepid recommendation? Because, as I said up top, it plays effectively as drama.

The pairing of Short and Streep shouldn’t work as a tentative love story, but there’s a sweet melancholy to these two people plagued by disappointment trying to remember what it’s like to fall in love. The show is needlessly tentative about letting Short play Oliver and his yearnings without broad gags. He’s very good, and very good opposite Streep, who seems to finds bits of mirth in the idea that it would take something outlandish to get Meryl Streep to do a streaming comedy — accents, singing, etc. — while enjoying a role that’s disarmingly normal.

Gomez and her impeccable sarcasm have generally been my favorite part of the series. This season expands Mabel’s discomfort at nearing 30 without a stable job or a stable living situation or a stable love life. Mabel spends much of the season hurt and frustrated by the people around her and it’s easy to empathize with Gomez’s droll, exhausted performance.

Charles has always been fueled by regrets and, having proven capable of doing the romantic lead thing in the first season and the paternal thing in the second, there’s less here that’s fresh for Martin. He’s saddled with a greater share of the physical shtick that the writers previously assigned to Short, and I wish I enjoyed it more. Martin’s best scenes aren’t with Short or Gomez or (Andrea) Martin, but rather in an episode that foregrounds grouchy neighbor Uma, played by the always wonderful Jackie Hoffman.

When it started, what set Only Murders apart was the number of things it was trying to do and how many of them it was doing well. It’s trying to do even more things at this point, and it’s only doing one or two well — though that may be enough for now, if not long-term.



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