It’s only natural for an ongoing show to revisit some of its past themes or story lines or set up an arc that extends across seasons, especially if they resonated early on. But in its second season, Only Murders in the Building has struggled to distinguish between continuity and a crowd-pleasing callback (which is then punctuated by Oliver’s version of “Amirite?” in case the reference went over anyone’s head).
There’s an apparent effort to recapture the magic of season one, so let me reassure the creative team: It’s still there! Steve Martin, Selena Gomez, and Martin Short are once again firing on all cylinders — their characters deepening their bonds while finding new ways to rib each other. The Arconia remains populated by capital-C Characters played by a lively mix of scene-stealing Broadway actors. And we still have an increasingly sympathetic victim whose life begs to be explored further. So, deepening characterization and developing story beats? Good. Flashbacks of Charles as a DILF? Also good. Attempting to re-create the cadence and foundation-rattling reveals of maybe the best episode from the first half of season one? That’s “The Tell,” which not only has to follow last week’s excellent, Charles-centric outing but marks the halfway point of season two.
As the Arconiacs — Sam (Jaboukie Young-White), Grant (Orson Hong), Marv (Daniel Oreskes), and Paulette (Ali Stroker) — note, it’s time to demonstrate that the show really is moving in a whole new direction this season and not just retracing its steps. These superfans are even more of a Greek chorus this time around, complaining about devoting so much of an episode to “the shit-talking bird” while observing that there’s “finally some story progress.” They’re mostly right about that last part, but this week’s episode clearly borrows from “Twist,” the fifth episode of season one, which took a closer look at a Mabel love interest, saw Charles and Oliver riff somewhat inappropriately (instead of STIs in the Hamptons, this time they trade names of public figures embroiled in the Iran-Contra affair), and delivered a game-changing twist.
Only Murders does this knowingly, of course, and in certain places, this underlining works. Charles being drawn to Jan again is less a retread than it is the show reinforcing Charles’s overreliance on the familiar. When he first visits her in jail, the scene is awash in different shades of blue (his signature color) — from Jan’s prison fit to the lighting. Along with the series writers (this week’s script comes from Matteo Borghese and Rob Turbovsky), costume designer Dana Covarrubias uses the characters’ wardrobes to signify connections and feed into their backstories. Throughout this second season, Charles, Oliver, and Mabel have taken turns mimicking each other’s styles. Mabel wore a very Charles-like glen plaid suit in “Framed” after recommitting herself to playing detective alongside her new friends. Last week, Oliver’s marigold-ish waistcoat was an obvious nod to Mabel’s signature color. Even Charles has swapped out his hatband for something more colorful.
I could go on forever about how thoughtful the costuming is (and I’m far from the only one, judging by how many interviews Covarrubias has done about this season’s Hitchcock influences alone), but I’m noting it here because of how often it’s used to denote cohesion. If season one was about bringing this team together, there could be a split on the horizon in season two. I thought the new career opportunities would be the impetus, but something even more personal might be driving the Arconia three apart. Mabel seems to be falling for Alice. Learning his other ex has married sends Charles back to his murderous ex’s side. And Oliver … oof, Oliver. After witnessing Teddy and Theo’s huge fight last week, Oliver tries again to balance his commitments to his family — including his hot son, Will (Ryan Broussard) — with his podcasting responsibilities. He does okay until he cuts himself off mid-pledge to Will, who definitely looks resigned to the fact that something else will always turn his dad’s head. Like sniffing out people’s secrets.
The first season laid some of this groundwork with Oliver asking all kinds of questions — from the inane (“Do you like your Beats?”) to the much more pointed (the Sting interrogation comes to mind). And he has a real penchant for taking Charles down a peg, qualifying almost every statement to come out of the actor’s mouth. But I’m not sure these actions and habits really add up to someone with an extraordinarily accurate bullshit detector. Oliver has never struck me as the most grounded of the bunch. Quite the opposite, really — this is the man who thought that building a pool (for a Splash musical, of all things) into a Broadway stage was a good idea. I know what they say about bullshitting a bullshitter, but Oliver’s skepticism comes and goes. He insisted that something was, in fact, going on with Mabel in “Twist,” and this week, he rightly surmises that Alice isn’t what she seems to be, though he has no idea how spot-on he is when he tells Charles that this is “the Jan thing all over again.”
Then there’s Teddy: Oliver had no idea his old friend and occasional patron had covered up a murderer or had done anything nefarious. He eventually got on board the Teddy/Angel theory last season, but he was reluctant at first. The big reveal in the final moments of “The Tell” — Oliver’s hot son might not be his son after all, which means Teddy may have already made good on his promise to “fuck” him — proves he has missed some key information in his own life. I can’t be too hard on Oliver; his love for his wife, Roberta (played by Adriane Lenox in season one and by Marie-Françoise Theodore in a flashback here), may have prevented him from seeing what was going on under his nose. But this episode’s writing insists that Oliver is exceptionally perceptive, whether he’s questioning someone or leading a game of Son of Sam.
All credit is due to Oliver — and to Martin Short, who regularly tempers his character’s bravado with vulnerability. Still, I don’t quite buy it. Not even when Alice cracks under questioning in a dizzying party scene that flashes in and out of the ’70s. (More kudos to Covarrubias for tracking down a leisure suit for Steve Martin and turning Selena Gomez into a fabulous, moving disco ball). Oliver may have learned a lesson from overlooking Jan (he didn’t like her but neither did he suspect her), which is why he puts the screws on Alice — his instincts seem to bear out as we see that she was lying about being the Son of Sam (in the game, that is). Oliver may know how to read people (which explains how he managed to get funding for such harebrained ideas as a combination adaptation of Tuesdays With Morrie and Weekend at Bernie’s), but he has been pretty oblivious, judging by Will’s revelation at the end of the episode.
It’s the rare false note for Only Murders. Still, it’s exacerbated by an uncharacteristically blunt episode, which heavily foreshadows Will’s surprising parentage. It includes a scene in which everyone plays a game about a psycho killer as the Talking Heads song of the same name plays. “The Tell” could have used more “show.”
• Samuel Farnsworth, who plays the young Oliver, shares a puckish quality with Martin Short, and I hope he returns in other flashbacks.
• Charles sounds so brokenhearted when he reminds Jan she’d tried to kill him that I wasn’t surprised to see him right back at visitation day.
• The “Angel in Flip Flops” music video is real, and it’s spectacular:
• I spied this week’s opening-credits Easter egg in Oliver’s window: a groovy lava lamp that fits in perfectly with the ’70s flashbacks and references.
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