"Only Murders in the Building" is more the merrier as guest stars join in visiting old friends

Determining this season's killer might be easier than before, but this show is about who we hang with along the way

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published August 8, 2023 2:59PM (EDT)

Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)
Only Murders in the Building (Hulu)

Three seasons into "Only Murders in the Building," the sprightly mystery comedy has banked enough affection with its fans to make the main case less essential to our enjoyment than what's happening in the lives of its citizen detectives. If you've discerned the show's common patterns and tells over the past two seasons, which happens to nearly every series in its third go-round, you may even finger a culprit weeks before the finale.

Even if that's the case, who cares? The killer reveal is always simply the cherry on the sundae, or the marmalade on the Pickle Diner's off-menu sandwich – it's a wonderful bit of sweetness added to something that's substantial on its own. And hanging out with old friends for a few weeks is the real grade-A meat and dairy this show provides.  

It's been more than a year since we caught up with Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez), Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin) and Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), which is too long of a stretch between visits to the Arconia, the grand New York City apartment complex where two homicides have occurred so far.

This season's death, which was teased in the second season finale, occurs outside the building and in the opening moments of Oliver's return to Broadway, in a play he wrote called called "Death Rattle." Charles co-stars with the body, actor Ben Glenroy (Paul Rudd), with Mabel in the audience. Does this oblige the trio to expand its podcast beyond the boundaries described in its title? The premiere contains that answer.

It also introduces one of the top-heaviest A-lister lineups yet. Rudd's last-minute appearance at the end of the previous season was enticing enough, but when Meryl Streep joined the cast as a struggling actor named Loretta (Meryl Streep), that certainly caught people's attention.

Only Murders in the BuildingOnly Murders in the Building (Hulu)Blinding guest star rosters are nothing new for this show. Along with Gomez, Short and Martin, "Only Murders in the Building" has cycled the likes of Sting and Amy Schumer through the building in its designated unit for the famous and delighted viewers with recurring appearances by the likes of  Jane Lynch and Nathan Lane. (Matthew Broderick has also signed on for this season but appears in a later episode.)

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It's one thing to draw top-tier celebrities to a show like this, which always stood an excellent chance of doing so given that Martin created it and critics love it. Using them innovatively while channeling what we know about them takes a precise hand. And this season employs Rudd and Streep adroitly by having them sensibly play against their respective images.

It's one thing to draw top-tier celebrities to a show like this. Using them innovatively while channeling what we know about them takes a precise hand.

Season 3 operates within two distinct timelines at first: one drops us in a few months before the play's debut when we meet Ben and his "Death Rattle" co-stars Kimber ("Joy Ride" star Ashley Park), Ty (Gerald Caesar) and Bobo (Don Darryl Rivera), along with Loretta, as they struggle to mount the production. The second is in the present, where Oliver reels at the prospect of having his first big return to Broadway prove as disastrous to his reputation as his last – remember how he described the undoing of "Splash! The Musical"?

This time Oliver is contending with the demanding and uncomfortably Oedipal mother and son producer team Donna (Linda Emond) and Cliff (Wesley Taylor), whose patience is much thinner than that of his former best friend Teddy Dimas (Lane, absent from this season due to a production scheduling conflict). And there's another omnipresent witness to every moment and misstep – a filmmaker named Tobert (Jesse Williams), hired by Ben to chronicle his Broadway debut.

Casting Rudd as a star with limited acting talent and a reputation for being a badly behaved narcissist is a simple gambit. Rudd has played good-natured dim bulbs before. Handing him one with a backstory as ridiculous as Ben's, a guy whose claim to fame is playing CoBro – "just a friendly zoologist who morphs into a 20-ft. cobra and helps the cops save the day!" – is one of the many arch winks embedded in the script. (If CoBro is an idiotic concept, what about "Ant-Man"?)

But the writers also develop Ben Glenroy's deep-rooted insecurities, allowing us to see more humane and bruised sides of him at appropriate moments.  

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Streep's evolution of Loretta is a little more straightforward since, well, she's still alive. But Loretta is the obverse of the actor, a woman who spent most of her life trying to seize the merest glow of the showbiz spotlight and gains it through Oliver, only to deliver some epically terrible acting in her first days on the production.

Only Murders in the BuildingOnly Murders in the Building (Hulu)Her performance and Rudd's meld with that of the rest of the excellent cast, including returning residents Michael Cyril Creighton's cat-worshipping Howard, whose experience as a theater nut is put to good use. Creighton's Howard is a neighbor who keeps us coming back to the show for his sweetness and his quirks, and pairing him with Short to respond to Oliver's endless barrage of colorful, cutting one-liners is bliss. All these moments compensate for the softer corners this season manifested in the usual physical farce and misdirects, and the questionable choice to make Andrea Martin's Joy as campily vivacious as she comes across.

Ultimately, however, that matters less than the vibe weighing on our trio, who begin to wonder who they are to each other when foul play between neighbors isn't the glue holding them together. Even that doesn't seem like a crisis that can't be solved by some quality time with a couple of recording devices, a bit of deadpan banter, and a murder map. With those lures in place, we're happy to keep prowling this place's halls for as long as it takes to find the next culprit, whether famous or merely criminal.

The two-episode third season premiere of "Only Murders in the Building" streams Tuesday, Aug.8 on Hulu.


By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

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