Los Angeles may have become more synonymous with reinvention, but New York City has long played a prominent role in American mythmaking. As Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin) rejoices at the start of the Only Murders in the Building season-two premiere, “Persons of Interest,” “Who doesn’t want to become the talk of the town here?” After all, if you can make it in New York, you can pretty much make it anywhere (a guy from New Jersey said that).
The veteran actor and his podcasting pals, Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) and Oliver Putnam (Martin Short), didn’t have celebrity on their minds when they first started making their podcast (well, Oliver probably did), but they’re about to find out the difference between fame and infamy in season two of this delightful Hulu series. The premiere episode leans into this dichotomy, creating a clear contrast with the opening moments of “True Crime.” In season one, the core trio was introduced to us in broad daylight as we watched them move through a typical day. “Persons of Interest” reveals the characters in the same order — first Charles, then Mabel, then Oliver (much to his presumed chagrin) — but in markedly different circumstances.
Charles goes on a leisurely stroll, only it’s nighttime, and instead of being humiliated by a passerby and son-of-a-fan, he’s excitedly greeted by his fellow New Yorkers. His face, along with Oliver’s and Mabel’s, is on the side of a bus. And there are fireworks — things are really looking up for the “three members of Murder She Wrote”! It’s revealed to be a fantasy, one of a handful in a giddy premiere highlighting how quickly the OMITB trio’s fortunes changed at the end of season one. Just as they were being celebrated by the people who had voted to evict them from their beloved Arconia, the amateur sleuths stumbled into another murder in their building. This time, the victim was Bunny Folger (Jayne Houdyshell), the no-nonsense president of the tenants’ board, and Mabel was the wrongly accused.
The illusion gives way to interrogation after interrogation after interrogation. Detective Williams (Da’Vine Joy Randolph) is now partnered with Detective Kreps (Michael Rapaport), who complains that he doesn’t get podcasts while yearning for “old Stern,” meaning Howard, indicating he’s another out-of-touch older white guy in a sea of them. These early scenes also recall their season-one counterparts: Charles gets the wind knocked out of his sails, Oliver is ready to sell out Mabel (not really but kinda), and Mabel is as cagey as ever. The key difference is the three wannabe detectives are no longer just neighbors who tolerate riding the elevator together — oh, and they’re now actually involved in a crime instead of just spitballing from the sidelines.
That was never really the case for Mabel, who knew the previous victim, Tim Kono (Julian Cihi). When she returned to the Arconia ten years after the wrongful conviction of her good friend and fellow “Hardy Boy” Oscar (Aaron Dominguez), she may have just drifted back there, but Mabel tried to get Tim to do the right thing. She had no idea that her old friend was trying to take down the dippin’ Dimases, Teddy (Nathan Lane) and Theo (James Caverly). But even after the Dimases and Jan (Amy Ryan) were arrested, Mabel still felt there were loose ends; unlike Oliver and Charles, she couldn’t readily accept a happy ending. Mabel’s dealt with more than her share of death; she worries her life has become defined by it.
So when Detective Williams suggests they all go and live their lives — after it becomes clear there isn’t enough evidence to hold them because Bunny was killed by a knife, not a knitting needle — Mabel’s the only one who wants to do just that. “I need a life away from death. We should all let ourselves be a little boring again,” Mabel says, offering to go watch people play chess in the park instead. “I’d rather be dead than boring,” Oliver responds — I wish he wouldn’t tempt fate like that!
The first season of Only Murders was, in part, about second chances and how they can sometimes be difficult to recognize. Charles thought Jan was his way out of self-imposed isolation, but he couldn’t have been more wrong: It was Oliver and Mabel who had rekindled something inside of him he thought was long dead. Plus Jan turned out to be Tim Kono’s murderer and maybe even a serial killer. Meanwhile, Oliver learned that his next opportunity didn’t have to come from someone else — that, like the man in that video that enchanted him, he could bounce back on his own after falling. And thanks to her new friends, Mabel again found a beacon in the Arconia, a home away from home.
“Persons of Interest” also promises ways forward — or “whole new directions” — for Oliver, Mabel, and Charles. An edgy and overly solicitous artist named Alice (Cara Delevingne) tries to woo Mabel, who’s been dubbed “Bloody Mabel” by the internet, for her “collective”; Charles is offered the part of “Uncle Brazzos” in a female-led Brazzos reboot; and Oliver is getting ready to pitch Amy Schumer, their new celebrity neighbor, on a TV adaptation of the OMITB podcast.
They’ll have to clear their names if they want to reap the rewards of renewed relevance and newfound notoriety. That establishes a pretty clear objective for the second season of a hit series, but Only Murders is as haunted as Mabel is. There are lingering questions, which even Amy Schumer points out. Who actually poisoned Winnie? For that matter, who left those notes on Oliver’s and Jan’s doors? Who texted Oliver and Charles to warn them, and did they also text Mabel? Did Jan kill anyone else at the Arconia? And at what point did Bunny buy some branded podcast merch? Or did Oliver give her the tie-dye hoodie as a peace offering?
The lack of resolution for those season-one storylines feels more intentional as “Persons of Interest” goes on, and the past keeps barging into the present. With the launch of Only Murderers in the Building (as teased at the end of season one), Cinda Canning (Tina Fey) and her look-alike collaborators (including one played by Anne Stringfield, Steve Martin’s wife) are now in direct competition with the OMITB crew. Series director and co-creator John Hoffman playfully juxtaposes the NPR group, who have way more investigating cred, with the harried Arconia three. At one point, Cinda and her doppelgängers knit and speak ominously to Mabel about the future (through their podcast, that is), looking like the Fates by way of Williamsburg.
It’s a good sight gag and a fun sequence overall, and it’s also a reference to a premiere episode that’s overloaded with them, which could become a problem down the road. In a scene that recreates that killer three-shot from the series premiere, Oliver calls back to their first meeting in the elevator by asking Mabel if she likes her Beats, then tells a confused Charles and Mabel that he’s calling back to their first meeting by asking Mabel about her Beats.
Now I love the dynamic between the three main characters. I could watch them mock and play off each other all day; I don’t even need them to leave the Arconia. And I know meta-humor has been baked into this show from the beginning. My issue isn’t with the callbacks as much as with the lampshading of the callbacks. Charles could just as easily be talking about OMITB the series, not the podcast, when he says: “It’s very rare for a true-crime podcast to do a sequel. They usually move on to a new case that never hits like the original.” There’s a fine line between self-aware and self-conscious, and it looks as though the new season is going to explore that along with Charles’s surprisingly deep connection to the Arconia.
• Oliver’s sweep of the correspondence in Bunny’s apartment yields a card with a message (“Bunny Folger, I want that painting”) that seems to be written in the same block letters as the notes left on his door and Jan’s. I don’t know that I subscribe to the thinking that Lucy wrote the latter, even though her writing (as a kid) looks similar. But then I thought Jan might be Theo’s mom, who was protecting him from across the courtyard — that’s just how big the Arconia is! — so I’m in no position to write off anyone else’s theories.
• You know Alice is not to be trusted because she’s way too impressed by what looks like the kind of Frida Kahlo print you could buy at Urban Outfitters.
• In the opening credits, I spied a painting in Charles’s apartment, which is the first Easter egg of the season and foreshadows the erotic Rose Cooper painting featuring Charles’s dad.