‘Only Murders in the Building’ Returns to the Scene

Early in the second season of Hulu’s “Only Murders in the Building,” Charles-Haden Savage (Steve Martin), one of a trio of amateur sleuths and podcasters, points out a pitfall of murder shows. “It’s very rare for a true-crime podcast to do a sequel,” he says. “They usually move on to a new case that never hits like the original.”

It’s just one of several meta “second season” references, which come across half like knowing jokes, half like pre-emptive confessions. “You guys are really struggling this season,” one character says, while a Greek chorus of podcast fans grouse about the season-within-a-season’s pacing: “Five entire episodes of vamping.”

“Only Murders” is a smart show — smart, as its New Yorker-esque opening titles suggest, is its brand — and it must know what it’s doing here. It is talking not only about murder podcasts, nor only about itself.

Instead, this series, which returns Tuesday and whose first season was a low-key delight of 2021, is one face in a curious modern TV lineup: Programs that tell a satisfying, complete story in a single season but then keep goingoften with diminishing returns.

We live in the TV age of more. It’s no longer a rare miracle for a canceled series to find a new home. Seemingly any vintage show with a fan base can be revived, thanks to a wealth of deep-pocketed outlets. The philosophy today is that if you can give people more of what they liked, then don’t waste time pondering whether you should.

This also applies to series that told complete stories in their first seasons. “Big Little Lies,” based on a novel by Liane Moriarty, returned for an encorewith bigger performances but littler payoffs. Showtime’s judicial thriller “Your Honor,” which seemed to end with deadly finality, is getting a retrial. “13 Reasons Why” became “Four Seasons, Why Not?”

And the past year or so is full of evidence that more is not necessarily better. “Made for Love,” also based on a novel, was inexplicably made in duplicate, and soon canceled. The amateur-espionage comedy “The Flight Attendant” wrapped up a zingy story of self-destruction and self-discovery in 2020. Season 2 this year contrived to keep Cassie Bowden (Kaley Cuoco) in the spy game, and a boozy good time turned into a strained hangover.

“Russian Doll” was intended from the start as a continuing series, but its first season was a crystalline, dirtbag-poetic downtown version of “Groundhog Day” that felt complete unto itself. This year’s time-traveling Season 2 showcased more of Natasha Lyonne’s crowd-pleasing old-soul wisecracking, but its baggy narrative didn’t do much to build on the existential themes of the original.

It is no sin for TV to repeat itself, of course. For decades, that was its purpose. Sitcoms and dramas alike would reset to the status quo with each episode, the better to run indefinitely. No one complained that “Law & Order” encountered one upscale murder case after another because that — not advancing the development of its characters — was what it was built to do.

But as TV grew more serial and ambitious, more focused on characters’ change and evolution, the question of how long a series should run became complicated. TV fiction, once a machine designed to keep running until the network accountants said, “Stop,” was now making lots of different kinds of stories, best told at different lengths.

Some of them were still suited to old-school long runs. “What We Do in the Shadows” no more needs an expiration date than its undead characters do. The American version of “The Office” had arcs and breadth of character that sustained it for years, whereas the darker British “Office,” more focused on its central miscreant, would have grated at more than two brief seasons.

But other creators are using TV to tell stories that are longer than movies but still require a definite end, within a number of episodes you can count on your fingers. Damon Lindelof may have disappointed a lot of fans (and a few executives) in saying that his spectacular “Watchmen” was done after one season, but it was the right call. Elizabeth Meriwether’s “New Girl” was a natural multi-season series, but she has said that her Elizabeth Holmes docudrama, “The Dropout,” should not force a second season after its completed first one.

As for “Murders,” it is, after all, a detective story, a genre that is set up to deliver case after case. (In another meta element, Charles, an actor, starred for years in one such procedural, “Brazzos,” playing a detective with the catchphrase, “This sends the investigation in a whole new direction.”)

It’s a detective story with some differences, however. The first season started as a light, quirky sendup of true crime and its obsessives. It ran on the comic chemistry between Martin and Martin Short (in the tailor-made role of the vainglorious but washed-up theater director Oliver Putnam), with Selena Gomez playing their deadpan millennial foil, Mabel Mora.

But halfway through the case — a killing in their Upper West Side co-op that turns the murder-podcast fans into murder-podcast makers — the season shifted gears, from a farce about oddball sleuths to a bittersweet comedy about the loneliness and voyeurism of Manhattanites who live cheek by jowl with neighbors.

Each of our detectives is a puzzle missing a piece — a lover, a child, a friend — and as the season expands, so does its human scope. The group’s building-mates, however irritating, covetous or suspect, are also driven by a need for connection, as are the gradually revealed villains (including a shady deli kingpin played by Nathan Lane) and even the trio’s podcast groupies.

Before its closing few minutes, which set up a cliffhanger that drives the Season 2 plot, it told a full, affecting story that would have stood alone wonderfully. The challenge now is how to plausibly keep its amateurs’ misadventures going. It’s possible to do this; see “Search Party,” which justified its five-season run by evolving far from its initial mystery premise.

Instead, Season 2 of “Only Murders” is entertaining in pretty much the same way as Season 1, which is both its strength and its weakness. The laughs are still reliable. Oliver still subsists entirely on dips and the power drink “Gut Milk”; Charles is chasing a career revival, playing the elderly “Uncle Brazzos” in a reboot of his old show. There are expanded roles for the eccentric side characters, like Tina Fey as a ruthless competing podcaster (think Sarah Koenig as supervillain).

But where Season 1 built and deepened, Season 2 mainly coasts, hitting different versions of the same emotional beats for the central trio, within a new screwball mystery that, in the eight episodes of 10 screened for critics, is more loosely plotted than the first. (The three are being framed for the killing of their former co-op board president.)

If this were “Brazzos,” returning to a formula would be no crime. But here, the procedural half of “Only Murders,” which wants to deliver familiar thrills, is pulling rank on the ambitious character-dramedy half, which needs to evolve and change in order to thrive.

If what you want from “Only Murders” is to watch its characters do more of the same things that made you laugh the first time around, then the new season is a good time. But — like many of TV’s attempts to turn what felt like a completed story into a multi-season saga — it does not send its investigation in a whole new direction.

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