Even with the overwhelming wealth of TV shows premiering every week, it’s rare to find one as fully formed as Only Murders in the Building. Hulu’s comedic murder mystery/true-crime podcast spoof arrived with a clear identity from minute one: a well-established comedy duo in stars Steve Martin and Martin Short; a surprising and fun third wheel with the addition of Selena Gomez; art direction inspired by The New Yorker magazine covers brought to life with a playful score by composer Siddhartha Khosla; and a target for its loving satire in true-crime podcasts and the people who listen to them. But most formidable is its skill in conjuring a whole world out of a single building, and how pleasant it is to inhabit that world for 30 minutes at a time.
Only Murders in the Building is set in the Arconia, an apartment building in Manhattan’s wealthy Upper West Side neighborhood. Its denizens are drawn from Old New York archetypes — cosmopolitan boomers with spacious apartments and well-stocked bar carts, interest in highbrow art, and an expectation that their well-cultivated idiosyncrasies be tolerated by all. It’s the sort of place where the presence of Fran Lebowitz, who built a career as an author before transitioning to Professional New Yorker, is both vital world-building and a highly targeted joke.
In its first season, Only Murders in the Building followed washed-up actor Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin), disgraced theater director Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), and subletter Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) as they bond together over suspicion that a dead resident’s alleged suicide was actually a murder — and start a podcast to chronicle their amateur investigation. Across 10 episodes, the series pulled double duty, both gently roasting true-crime aficionados while also constructing a compelling mystery in its own right, doling out jokes and intrigue in equal measure.
It’s charm with a bit of an edge; Oliver, Charles, and Mabel are true-crime fans that wedged themselves into a classic real-crime case. So while there are hijinks as the unlikely trio bumbles their way to a conclusion (a solution they kind of stumble across more than figure out), Only Murders in the Building can also be read as a story that implicates them. Their fandom inspires other fans, and their need to construct a compelling narrative centering themselves around another person’s death leads to a lot of turmoil for the denizens of the Arconia.
This was underlined in a season finale that provided a satisfying conclusion and directly led to another mysterious murder to dive into for season 2, one that may not have happened were it not for its heroes’ meddling.
That second corpse brings a twist to Only Murders in the Building’s second season: This time, the heroes are the prime suspects. It’s a classic inversion for a show like this, one that’s pulled off with a bit of metafictional flair, since Oliver, Charles, and Mabel are also true-crime podcast stars who are now podcasting their way through a murder they were framed for — literally posting through it. A few metafictional jokes (reviews of their podcast being surprisingly “cozy” reflect real-life reviews of the show’s first season) suggest that it’s possible the writers of Only Murders in the Building are a little too enamored with their show to maintain the gently satirical edge that makes its New Yorker-core aesthetic tolerable, but luckily this isn’t the most compelling thing about the show.
Only Murders in the Building isn’t a joy to watch because of its Clue-adjacent approach to a murder mystery — it’s because the Arconia is such a fully realized setting. One of the markers of a good television show is in how well it implies a world around it. Put simply: Can the show sustain an entire episode about a character that just appears in the background of another? An apartment building is perfect for this, one full of countless people living in close proximity to one another but who often remain a mystery, where the actual edifice hides just as many stories as its residents — as Charlie, Oliver, and Mabel learn when they discover entire hidden passages in the Arconia in season 2.
On Only Murders, a surprising number of background characters is given the spotlight, and they’re all equally compelling. This is arguably the most New York City thing about this Old New York show — it never forgets that everyone came from somewhere, that every person you meet has a family and a history and that learning more about them will almost always surprise you. Through these people and their stories, you learn how the city has changed and where it might be going, who was allowed to be in a neighborhood and who was kept out. Mabel, as a young Latina outsider, gave the series some much-needed perspective in season 1, one that contrasts with the new season’s renewed focus on history and what kind of people flocked to the city’s Upper West Side — what they may have been looking for, or hiding from.
In the second season, the Arconia continues to be a portal to much wider worlds, as Oliver and Charles work through relationships with their estranged children and their personal history, the history of the Arconia, other tenants who lived there before them, and how it all might intersect with a nude painting of Charles’ father that keeps changing hands in nearly every episode. It’s zany, it’s weird, and sometimes it’s a little bit sad. But hey: It’s New York.
Only Murders in the Building’s second season premieres on Hulu Tuesday, with new episodes weekly.