A genre that modern TV seems to lack in is a good, old-fashioned murder mystery. Or, rather, a good, old-fashioned murder mystery starring two comedy legends and a former Disney star as a team of misfits brought together by their love of murder podcasts.
Either way, the gap was filled by Only Murders in the Building, a show that nails its campy blend of comedy and conspiracy in a way that shows like How To Get Away with Murder couldn’t quite do. In all fairness, that show wasn’t executive produced by Martin Short.
Although Only Murders’ finale never quite reaches its midseason highs, the season does keep its viewer guessing with its swift pace, colorful cast of talent and catchy musical theme. It might seem like a lack of faith that led to the show’s 1- episode, 30-minute-a-piece arc, but it rings more like a stroke of genius. Easy to binge, light on filler and genuinely funny, the show follows something similar to a Clue-style progression, with easy-to-distinguish props, locations, caricatures.
The series riffs on old cop shows, highlighted by Charles-Haden Savage’s (Steve Martin) constant references to his glory days on the 70s program Brazzos, but it also riffs on murder podcasts themselves. SNL alum Tina Fey, who narrates the show (in a clever, omniscient fashion that beautifully connects the dots at the end of the season), plays a podcasting guru who manipulates her swarm of imitators and holds a general monopoly over original ideas. The final episode confirms that there will be more of her character in the future.
The show’s self-awareness is a great service to those who are naturally skeptical of plot devices and random sentimental revelations. The show still features these necessary evils from time to time, but the dry humor combined with Hulu’s pro-F word policy helps to defuse the tension any time the series starts to take itself too seriously.
In case there is any doubt to the show’s potential as a successful genre hybrid, it should suffice to mention that Jane Lynch, Nathan Lane and even musical superstar Sting make appearances throughout the show in various kooky roles; except the latter, who just plays an exaggerated, passive-aggressive version of himself. Lynch playing an overly confident, womanizing stunt double is enough premise for its own show. Bring her back for season 2, and the Emmys will be breaking down her doors.
Stylistically, the show’s title credits, production design and musical composition help to distinguish it from other crime capers. The series is set in a fancy apartment building and it would be a huge disappointment if there was no artistic license to the camera. Most credit can be given to the show’s art department budget, but bringing in directors Gillian Robespierre (Obvious Child, Landline), Cherien Dabis (Ramy) and Jamie Babbitt (But I’m a Cheerleader) was a shrewd decision in pointing the show toward a seamless and cinematic final product.
Without spoiling, it is the teensiest bit disappointing that the show peaks in the middle. A fascinating audio experiment in episode 7 seems to indicate greater ambitions for presentation and depth. Unfortunately, the disappearance of a certain character in the last couple episodes greatly narrows the potential for multi-motive culpability; in other words, it’s not much of a nail-biter. Rather than milking the reveal of the final episode with a thoughtful twist, the show puts its efforts into a lukewarm epilogue that sets up the next season.
I’m as happy as anyone that the show was renewed, and that we will be seeing more of Charles, Oliver and Mabel. It does seem as though the show deliberately avoided tying things up all neatly with a bow for intrigue’s sake. The show shouldn’t be afraid to expand its premise outside of the Arconia building, but at the same time, fears of the show losing its contained atmospheric charm are valid. Is there a set number of seasons in the works? Was the second season written prior to renewal? Will the show stoop to killing off one of its main characters?
Now that the series’ continuation is canon, it’s harder to soak up the satisfaction of the first mystery’s resolution. Showrunners must be cognizant of defining their stakes, as thus far, prison and murder are just six-letter words. Embracing black comedy aspects as seen in FX’s Fargo will give some mobility to season two’s established premise. A show can always get darker, but rarely can it return to the light. Strategy is essential; if deftly handled, Only Murders in the Building could find its place ranked among the best TV shows running today.