In the second season premiere of "Only Murders in the Building" series creator John Hoffman enlists Steve Martin's Charles Haden-Savage to speak aloud a widely held concern about the show's likelihood of recapturing its freshman year magic.
"It's very rare for a true crime podcast to do a sequel," Charles tells his sleuthing partners Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) and Oliver Putnam (Martin Short). "They usually move on to a new case that never hits like the original."
Charles line proved true in some respects, because Season 2 does hit differently than the first by expanding our view into the personal lives of these three and their neighbors in the Arconia, a stately New York apartment that became the scene of two murders, back to back.
While our trio never lost sight of their goal to find who murdered their building board president, Bunny Folger (Jayne Houdyshell), their road to that discovery wound through their separate but related family histories, each tied to their fathers. Charles long believed his father was a terrible man. Figuring out how his dad's role in a sought-after rare painting at the heart of the main mystery brought him peace.
Oliver's son hit him with news related to a DNA test that made both men question everything. Mabel dispelled the coping mechanism that made her black out unpleasant events from her memory, like what happened the night of Bunny's murder . . . and the real reason she felt her father abandoned her.
Throwing a killer reveal party is a great way to pull a motley group of ideas, and people, into one space to solve a lot of problems in one pass. That was the trio's thinking in "I Know Who Did It," the second season finale Hoffman co-wrote with Robb Turosky and Matteo Borghese.
In a very Agatha Christie move, the three gather an assortment of suspects in Bunny's apartment to stage a livestream reveal doubling as overly theatrical immersive theater, in order to trick their lead suspect and podcasting rival Cinda Canning (Tina Fey) into confessing.
But a very Oliver-esque twist revealed the real killer: Cinda's meek assistant Poppy (Adina Verson), who outed herself as the very alive Becky Butler, the supposed murder victim at the center of Cinda's award-winning podcast "All Is Not OK in Oklahoma" – and the reason Charles, Oliver and Mabel became friends in the first place. Becky was done in by DNA testing and an unusual sandwich order from the neighborhood diner. Catching her changed the trio's fortunes for the better.
If all the world's a stage, returning Oliver to the director's seat with Charles as his lead was inevitable. The finale leaps ahead one year to show just that, while introducing a new key character, Ben Glenroy, played by one of the most popular actors in Hollywood. Everyone seems to be doing well until, you guessed it, another body drops, albeit in a different building.
Continuing what we hope is now an annual tradition, we snagged Hoffman on the phone to break down what went into selecting the second season's perpetrator, along with getting a few details about Season 3, and finding out whether one gasp-out-loud, party-killing moment was intentionally coordinated with one of the star's real-world career intentions.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Poppy (Adina Verson) in "Only Murders In The Building" (Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)
The last time that we spoke, "Only Murders In the Building" had already been picked up for a second season. And if I recall that conversation correctly, you also said that you had an idea of what would happen in the second season. How long did you know that it would all link back to "All Is Not OK in Oklahoma"?
I had a feeling about a few candidates for who would have killed, or might have killed Bunny, who might be up to framing the trio at the end of Season 1. And I was leaning toward the Cinda-Poppy world, and more leaning toward Poppy.
First of all, I love Tina Fey as Cinda. But I also knew there were riches to be found and discovered for Adina Verson playing Poppy. I think she's just brilliant. And so I was excited to give Adina something fantastic. But more importantly, in the narrative, it was just very clear to me that from the end of Season 1 into Season 2, there's the clear direct links: careful what you step into if you're going to start poking around a murder investigation and doing a podcast as amateurs, because it's not a non-threatening situation potentially.
And so that made it necessary to look at connections from Season 1 into Season 2 and think of the two seasons' mysteries. So I went back to the very beginning and thought, OK, if I'm looking at Poppy, what is that story? And I do remember the day it hit, and it was like, "Oh my God, what if she's Becky Butler? Let's look at that." Then the whole thing just felt like an unveiling in our minds for what we could do.
Can you share who your other candidates for the killer might have been?
" [Be] careful what you step into if you're going to start poking around a murder investigation..."
Yeah. I mean, we always like to keep it pretty open just to be able to surprise or make real sense of it. But the main ones were Teddy [Dimas, played by Nathan Lane]. Obviously, he had the most against them. Could Jan (Amy Ryan) have been doing something? Could she have had cohorts that are trying to set them up now ,extending her diabolical side? We played with so many. For a moment there it was Arnav (Maulik Pancholy) from across the hall. I always love to make a suspect out of Howard . . .
. . . always. And now we love him from Episode 8, but he still has that dark side. And it's the way Michael Creighton brilliantly plays Howard. He can't help the darkness underneath Howard.
Oh no. Not Howard.
I know, right? I mean, he did put his cat in the freezer.
. . . But ultimately, stepping back and looking at the show itself, if we were thinking of these first two seasons, as comrades and connective tissue, that the show itself talking about telling a story, manipulating a story – taking a true story with a tragedy at the center of it, making a success off of a story like this. The nature of notoriety and infamy in New York City became one of the major themes, and how all of that could be magnified as our trio was put in the center of a new case.
There's something wonderful about the way that you used celebrity as a misdirect this season, especially after Season 1 when Sting, for a hot minute, was a suspect. This season we had Amy Schumer, we had Cara Delevingne, we had Shirley MacLaine, which is great, and Michael Rapaport. And to top it off, your big celebrity Paul Rudd at the end of the finale setting up the next season. Did you have a lot of people coming to you and asking to be part of the show? Or did you have these name in mind?
It's always a balancing act, right? And I recognize there were aspects of riding the line with the meta in our show, so that it doesn't feel like it takes you out, or we're commenting too much. I've always been very conscious that it has to be a blend.
In the world of New York City and apartment buildings, it's very believable that Cyndi Lauper lives at the Apthorp or in the Ansonia or wherever. Or Sting lives in the Belnord. That is not too far of a reach. As long as it's in the fabric of what's real in New York, that's good.
I love the notion of that rotating penthouse that Sting has, of what friend got it now for a six-month lease or a year sublet. And Amy Schumer moving in and redesigning and taking over, that was planned. But that went through a few permutations.
We had one gigantic star who for a moment was going to do it. And then another very big star who reached out to us and wanted to do it, but a COVID situation kept that from happening at the last minute -- really, at the last minute, I'll be honest. And then it was this lovely thing of, "Oh God, we're up against it." Amy happily jumped in and saved our asses and was absolutely stone-cold brilliant.
And I will tell you, just as a little bit of a tease, that beyond the surprise at the end of the season, or where we might be going next season with our guest star, it's only gotten crazier for Season 3 . And there's quite an amazing development coming.
Oliver (Martin Short) in "Only Murders In The Building" (Craig Blankenhorn/Hulu)
Let's talk about the Paul Rudd of at all. Does this mean that he's not the person who is in the penthouse?
That you'll have to wait to see.
OK, fair enough. I'm not going ask too much the specifics of what to expect. But I just want to make a couple of observations and, before that, seek one clarification. What does the site of the body dropping mean for the title?
Yeah, hello. Perfect question. And I only want to say, "Hang tight."
So it's not necessarily, "This is 'Only Murders in the Building,' which now means any building. If it happens on a sidewalk, it doesn't qualify"?
Well, let's just put it this way. We're very conscious of that question coming up. And in our development of Season 3, it's very much a part of the discussion within the writing and within the movements of what could possibly happen.
OK. Here's my observation as a TV nerd. I deeply appreciate having Paul, as playing this character, but also as the body. And it comes back to the New York-ness of the show.
If you talk to many, if not all, New York-based actors who make it to television, one of the shows they reference as a rite of passage of being a working professional New York actor is "Law & Order."
Among viewers, there's almost this running joke of like, OK, there's the regular cast of cops and attorneys, but if there's somebody who is a vaguely recognizable actor, among the suspects, that person probably did the crime.
Casting Paul makes me appreciate, first of all, how "Only Murders in the Building" uses celebrities to misdirect. We were primed to think that of course, it was Cinda Canning, right up to the end. But secondly, you're presenting Paul Rudd as the body, the victim, in Season 3. Famous people don't typically sign up for a show to play the body. Of course, I understand that's not quite it, since we have a year to examine. How did that play into your decision of who would be assuming these roles both for Season 2 and for Season 3?
"You never know if anything's gonna work."
Absolutely. And the famous person, well, it hit me that God, they're really plum roles. Look at what we did for Bunny and for Jayne Houdyshell, as a victim. Same with Tim Kono. Julian Cihi had great, great scenes and great stuff to do. So there's a little bit of a feast for Paul Rudd, I'm hoping, yet to come that illuminates a lot about what position he might hold in Season 3.
In that way, it feels not too diminishing in that way or surprising, in some ways, for the world of our show. But yes, I get what you're saying about the "Law & Order" thing.
Now let me ask about an inanimate character that played a major role in this season, which is the Arconia's secret passageways. Now that their existence has bene established, and there's a new building manager who's going to be doing construction, what does that mean for the fate of those secret passageways?
Oh, it's just . . . your questions are killing me. Yes, these are considerations that we're attending to, let's put it that way, regarding the passageways and the untenable nature of people knowing these are here. And certainly a pretty stern taskmaster of a board president, who upon hearing that, I think, in general would say there's some work to be done in the Arconia. Potentially, I think the conversation between Nina and Lester opened up a new view for Nina, and a lovely bit of humanity there in Episode 8 of Season 2 during the blackout, that that allowed her to sort of potentially regard the Arconia anew within the year that we jump. But yes, there will be an addressing of those passageways and an addressing a few other things specific to the Arconia and its structure.
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Let's talk about the whole Steve Martin moment during the "Killer Party" where we were made to think, "Oh, my God, is that it for Charles?"
Did that sell for you? Did it?
Well, here's the thing: Since Charles is an actor, and it was the "Killer Party," I suspected that it was staged. But there's also that huge profile of Steve circulating with him saying, "After this, I'm retiring from acting." So there was that moment of fear where I did think, "Wait a minute, they're not actually doing this, right? The show is already cleared for Season 3!"
We really have been talking about this in the room over the last few days since that story dropped. I was like, "Oh, I forgot! We just added a new dimension, maybe, to the believability for that moment in Episode 10," which we were happy to do.
And that was my question. Obviously Hulu's PR department works very closely with its shows, but Steve's story was a surprise for you as well?
Totally! I'm kind of obsessed with the PR team, only all I care about is protecting as much as we can about the reveals, you know, that are essential. So I'm looking at every picture that we're putting up to make sure that the picture doesn't give away too much. But they're so good.
That's a little bit of the dance with a mystery show like this. But then you have those moments that are just happenstance. And that was one of them. Steve's interview was completely on his own, and we didn't know what he was gonna say and didn't know that frankly, that he'd been thinking that way about the show and about his time on it as an actor and that potentially this might be it.
Cinda (Tina Fey) and Poppy (Adina Verson) in "Only Murders In The Building" (Patrick Harbron/Hulu)
Before we end, I want to return to something to told me at the end of the first season, that you were kind of new at writing a mystery series. Now that you've complete a second season, how are you feeling about the art of writing a mystery?
Truthfully, you never know if anything's gonna work. I didn't. You take these leaps and you do everything you can to make them the best you can. And you get incredible people around you to collaborate with and hope that they're ready to step up in that way that you crave and kind of need.
Now that you've seen Episode 10, I feel really proud of the puzzled storytelling, the dazzling unfurling that happens there. We're also leaning back into our trio to say, we're going to hand this off to them now at the end of all of this insanity that they've been dealing with their personal traumas and their storylines that are deeper and more challenging and really, let them be kind of brilliant and sort of making them a bit heroic in that moment. All of that was the wish, but you never know who's gonna pull it off.
I have felt a little more confident as we've gone along to get a little more flashy, add some flourishes as much as possible. And I feel that's a perfectly apt question because I feel that now for Season 3 feels like we're swinging in the same way that's very big for the show. But also, we have a little more guts behind us as far as we know how to do this now.
All episodes of "Only Murders in the Building" are streaming on Hulu.
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