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Only Murders in the Building Is Caught Between Its Big Heart and Bigger Ideas

Photo: Craig Blankenhorn/ HULU

I’ve never bought into the reading of Only Murders in the Building as a critique, let alone an indictment, of the culture around true crime. A spoof isn’t necessarily satire, and in any case, Mabel, Oliver, and Charles have way too much fun for their adventures not to be charming. (And the Arconia is way too beautiful not to make me want to blow my life savings on an apartment down payment, body count be damned.)

But there is a recurring mechanism in Only Murders’ storytelling that makes me think the show is interested in grappling with true crime’s tendency to flatten humanity for the sake of spectacle. The series’ compassionate approach to the classic murder-mystery move — taking a beat to revisit and recontextualize a previously peripheral character — bestows a distinctive generosity upon the array of individuals who inhabit this world. When I recall the first season, I think almost exclusively about “The Boy From 6B,” a stunner of an episode that foregrounds Theo, hitherto a supporting figure, and largely unspools through his perspective. Being that Theo is a deaf character, much of the installment plays out in silence, and what makes this storytelling choice so material, as opposed to merely ornamental, is how central Theo’s narrative and his experience of the world are to everything happening in the plot at this point. “The Boy From 6B” captures a lot of what’s uniquely great about Only Murders in the Building: Aside from the coziness of it all, it’s a show deeply interested in untangling a setting dense with people. There’s always another perspective to unpack, another layer to unpeel, that will almost certainly unlock a new way of understanding the world you’re looking at.

In Only Murders’ plenty fun but wildly unwieldy second season, that sensibility appears most prominently in third episode “The Last Day of Bunny Folger,” which recontextualizes the character whose sudden murder serves as the catalyst for Mabel, Oliver, and Charles’s sophomore adventure. Folger, played with furrowed-brow perfection by Jayne Houdyshell, was mostly deployed as an obstacle and minor antagonist for much of the first season, a harrumphing figure whose position as ironfisted Arconia board president allowed her to threaten our heroes with eviction in the fallout of their high jinks. Against that context, her surprise murder felt a little cruel: a broadly drawn New Yorker cartoon of an old lady tossed to the side as raw material for a cliffhanger.

But “The Last Day of Bunny Folger” retrospectively substantiates that choice. With great tenderness, Only Murders follows Bunny on the last day of her tenure as president and, ultimately, her life. We’re treated to a brisk walk through her morning routine: listening to the local radio personality mull over the changing city around him; reading the sports pages as a long-suffering Knicks fan (“Linsanity!”); lifting pink dumbbells while uneasily rehearsing her retirement speech. “I’m not going to let these fuckers see me cry,” she says before armoring herself in a fur coat and heading out into the world, where she briefly kicks it with the local breakfast-cart guy and fellow furrowed-brow Uma, a neighbor who obliquely tries to dissuade her move to Florida.

During her standing lunch appointment at the Pickle Diner, Bunny sifts through a Boca Raton brochure, wondering about life beyond her identity as the god of a small kingdom. When the check comes, she tips a thick envelope of cash to the waiter. “No one else who needs it,” she says when he objects. “Make me a promise: Don’t only love one thing. Because if that one thing goes away, then you’re left with nothing. And that sucks.” It’s a sweet, melancholic character note: The “cranky old bitch” is also a person grieving the cost of the commitments she’s made in her life. It also injects a fresh wrinkle into the mystery: We learn Bunny was at the diner with the mystery figure who would turn out to be a key culprit in her murder.

Most interestingly, we’re shown Oliver, Mabel, and Charles from Bunny’s perspective, where they read as obnoxious, annoying, and self-centered. Frankly, this is probably how they come across to most of their neighbors not directly involved in their caper, and it’s here that Only Murders briefly occupies an engaging space of critique. Bunny’s antagonism in the first season was informed by her love for the building she governs. Meanwhile, our three protagonists — well, more specifically, Oliver and Charles — were largely oblivious to how their high jinks affected the people around them, so caught up in their excitement of solving a literal murder in the building. That solipsism has dire consequences. Indeed, the last moments of Bunny’s life involved her reaching out to the trio for solace, their not comprehending her need for compassion, and her returning alone to her apartment, where she’s ultimately killed. For a moment, the show seems to be evoking the question: Are Charles, Oliver, and Mabel, as a collective, kinda assholes in this world?

In fact, it’s possible to read the Arconia Three as indirectly responsible for her death. Season two’s murder-mystery resolves in spectacularly messy fashion; it’s tough to argue the reveal of Poppy as the mastermind (her?) was entirely earned, as our recapper observed. But what’s interesting about the revelation is how it calls the Only Murders trio’s in-world effect into question. Wasn’t Poppy’s choice to kill Bunny a consequence of our heroes’ fame, given that their notoriety was the very reason the Arconia entered her radar in the first place? And wasn’t true-crime fame the very thing Poppy coveted, not just of the kind the Only Murders trio enjoyed, but also that of Cinda Canning, her monster of a boss and the show’s most overt parody of a noxious true-crime podcaster type? This could’ve been a fascinating thread for the show to explore, but Only Murders ultimately doesn’t run with it, opting instead to commit to its underlying pleasures as a cozy fantasy, even giving Canning a last-minute face turn. It’s a disappointing decision; Only Murders in the Building has the tools to go to genuinely interesting places, but struggles when it feels like it has to choose between a big heart or a bigger idea.

You can see this very tension at the season’s end. The finale largely ends on a high note for all characters involved: Charles enjoys a career revival and consummates a new love interest; Oliver strengthens his bond with his son in the wake of learning they’re not biologically related, then gets a chance to direct a big play; Mabel moves on emotionally and repairs her relationship with Cara Delevingne. (Side note: The use of bizarro guest stars this season was totally out of control.) We jump forward a year, and it seems like everyone is living happily ever after, free of consequences, in a manner that feels almost dreamlike.

Then comes the fresh cliffhanger. Paul Rudd, who cameos as Ben Glenroy, the co-lead of Oliver’s big Broadway production with Charles, doubles over and dies onstage, blood dramatically pooling down the side of his mouth. “You’ve got to be fucking kidding me,” says Mabel, closing out the season. The line is played for high-jink amusement, but there’s a lurking horror to the broader situation. Given the simmering conflict between Charles and Ben, it’s another murder our heroes will certainly be implicated in, another mystery for them to solve to save their hides, another podcast investigation to boot up. Our sleuthing characters seem stuck in a hell where they’re forced to confront death over and over. Perhaps next season will finally make full use of this dark predicament and find a way to merge these big ideas with the show’s very big heart.

Only Murders Is Caught Between a Big Heart and Bigger Ideas