The season-two premiere of Only Murders in the Building went out of its way to reassure audiences that this is the same show we fell in love with last year, piling on the in-world references like so much hummus on a chip. All the callbacks and highlighting of callbacks made the series look less confident in its return than its debut, but those (second) opening-night jitters start to resolve themselves in “Framed” just in time for the arrival of Shirley freaking MacLaine.
Last season, Tim Kono’s backstory was revealed gradually: parts of his childhood, the life-altering decision he made as a young adult, his quest to make things right, and finally his death at the hands of his ex, Jan. The Arconia was the site of it all, the place where he redeemed himself after betraying his good friend Oscar. This building is so much more than a backdrop for tragicomedy; it’s a world unto itself, and it has an even bigger role to play in season two. The story of Bunny Folger, we’re told, is tied to that of the Arconia itself but in a much more direct way than for the other residents. Her father, Archibald Carter — an architect and a peeping Tom — designed the building, including the hidden elevator in her closet (Oliver: “Where does it go? Hell?”), other secret passageways, and, more than likely, the room where the Dimases stashed their ghoulish goods.
But after a quick, cheeky reel of historical footage, the episode’s flashbacks are dominated by Charles, who, as a young boy, helped his dad prep for “auditions” at a building across from the Arconia. The older Savage (I don’t think we know his first name yet) was using the boy to cover up multiple affairs, making Charles’s sad life even sadder. He was there when his father was arrested, dragged out of that same building near the Arconia in a blood-stained shirt. We know from a season-one monologue (written by Brazzos himself) that Mr. Savage was a crap dad and husband, but was he also a murderer? Also what is up with this particular block on the Upper West Side? Then again, I guess four murders (and counting) over the course of, oh, 60 years isn’t a staggering number, all things (including the show’s title) considered.
Once again, Only Murders uses Charles as a mirror for the murder victim. In season one, he reflected Tim Kono’s isolation and loneliness. He has even more in common with Bunny, whose home life may also have been upended by his philandering dad. Steve Martin also does the heavier lifting in the first two episodes of the season once more as Charles starts to reckon with what his father might have done and the possibility that Bunny is his half-sister(!).
But there’s also a bright side for Charles: The Brazzos reboot has already been ordered to series, so he’s back, baby (as long as he doesn’t go to jail). Charles doesn’t even seem to mind that he’ll be playing second fiddle to a young woman, but given how well he gets along with Mabel, that isn’t really a surprise. This casting does mean there’s a chance this latest show within the show will re-create the dynamic between Mabel and Charles, in which case … I might have to put the writers on notice. That’s just putting a porkpie hat on a porkpie hat! There’s underlining your themes, and then there’s circling, highlighting, and putting a sticky note next to them: “This is important!”
I’d be less concerned if the show eased up on the lampshading. Instead, there’s this exchange between Charles and Oliver as they plan to sneak Bunny’s stolen painting — the stolen erotica that has Charles’s dad and his nut sack on display — back into Bunny’s apartment in order to thwart whoever’s trying to frame them:
Charles: “We’re getting the hang of this.”
Oliver: “Absolutely. You can tell it’s our second season.”
What was once just lively meta-humor is beginning to feel apologetic, especially now that there’s a whole other team of podcasters (admittedly, Cinda Canning, et al., are pros) following the case. And with the new murder and all the new players, it just doesn’t seem efficient to call attention to jokes that have already been made or to note that there’s a show coming together within this show (especially since there are at least four by now, counting Cinda’s podcasts).
The time is much better spent with the Arconia three as they do just about anything else. Selena Gomez, Martin Short, and Steve Martin are one of the best ensembles on TV right now, and it’s a joy to watch their characters alternately bicker and support one another. When Oliver goes off on one of his name-dropping binges, Mabel provides the perfect button for the moment: “Okay, you must ask permission to tell stories from now on.” And Charles’s typically crisp pronunciation makes “Is that a shadow or a tiny bit of his balls?” one of the funniest line readings so far.
The core trio is as solid and dynamite as ever, as are returning secondary characters such as Howard (Michael Cyril Creighton) and Uma (Jackie Hoffman), who now seem to hold very different opinions of the building podcasters and Bunny. It’s the new additions that are more of a mixed bag. Amy Schumer wields a blithe arrogance here as part of her heightened persona, but that’s really all there is to it. (She should’ve asked her Trainwreck co-star LeBron James for tips.) That said, I would probably watch a show where she tries to play Amy Ryan while little Timothée Chalamet does his best Martin Short.
Bunny’s mother, Leonora, is the most immediately compelling so far; MacLaine makes her imperious yet earthy. She knows exactly what she wants out of life — a painting, a cocotini (made with coconut liqueur, not, as Howard thinks, chocolate), a lover — and she goes after it. And yet she may not have always been this way, or at least she knows that not all women move through the world this way. She recognizes the plight of women like Rose Cooper, without the means to get out of a possibly abusive relationship, who only rate posthumously: “That’s the lot of a woman — in order to be recognized, you have to disappear.” Leonora isn’t the type to disappear, though; she doesn’t even blink when she tells Charles she was sleeping with his dad, who was also sleeping with Rose Cooper.
That line offers some of the smartest and subtlest commentary on the true-crime genre in the season so far. The show is less subtle when it comes to Mabel, who, at Alice’s behest, destroys a sculpture of herself to tear down the past, I guess? The stuff about her aptitude for puzzles in the premiere felt like a part of what Mabel’s mom said about her desire to find out the ending of a story before she could finish reading it. And it made me realize we don’t know anything about Mabel’s dad, who might come back in a big way if Charles’s story line is any indication.
Alice is supposed to be an intriguing new romantic prospect for Mabel (not hard to see why), but she recalls Oscar in certain ways (she’s much better dressed, though). We don’t know if she’s good for Mabel, and she’s definitely hiding something. But I think the show made the right call in moving past Oscar; his relationship with Mabel always felt more friendly than romantic. Otherwise, Oscar might have become too central to the show, which would have thrown off the balance. Fare thee well, Tie-Dye Guy.
• Can Nina Lin really be worse than Bunny? I guess we’re about to find out.
• I keep writing “Mrs. Gandolfini” instead of “Mrs. Gambolini” re: Bunny’s parrot, but that’s what she gets for teasing everyone by saying, “I know who did it.”
• “Why doesn’t Mom want you to be an actor?” “Because she’s a dream killer, son.” I can’t wait to learn more about Charles’s mom.
• “It’s a very good show to have on in the background when you’re dying.” Leonora and Shirley MacLaine are coming for our jobs, fellow critics!
• Our second opening-credits Easter egg is a parrot, which takes the place of the dog on a leash in front of the Arconia.