In ‘Only Murders in the Building’ Season 3, the Case Is Dark and the Comedy on Target

There is a scene in the season three premiere of “Only Murders in the Building” where Mabel (Selena Gomez) catches up with her neighbors turned co-podcasters Charles (Steve Martin) and Oliver (Martin Short). It’s one of those moments where a member of the group realizes she’s been left out of certain loops and reminds the guys she wants to be updated on what’s going on in their lives. The scene captures the real heart of this hit Hulu comedy, where every season the trio investigates a new murder mystery. Even more than the killings, what makes this series work is the chemistry between the three leads. They break away from the typical idea of TV sleuths, making us care for them like quirky friends who happen to be cornered into having to catch a murderer every so often.

The curtain rises this time on Oliver directing a revival of a Broadway production, “Death Rattle.” On opening night his leading man, Ben Glenroy (Paul Rudd) drops dead, of course. Naturally this development throws Oliver’s production into a complete tailspin, aside from posing the question of who would want Ben dead. A rewind to a few months prior gives us a view into how things were going with the show. Ben, a movie actor famous for “Girl Cop,” arrives at the table reading, behaving like a complete pompous diva. Also in the cast is Loretta Durkin (Meryl Streep), an actor who has been holding on to her dream for decades and seems to finally get the break she needs with Oliver. Charles is in it too. How could he not be? Mabel drops in because she’s been a fan of Ben’s since she was a teen. She also has some somber news. Her aunt has sold the apartment at the Arconia and so Mabel will have to vacate in about four weeks. 

Emotionally, this season of “Only Murders in the Building” has a certain growth in the nature of the material. The addition of a powerhouse like Meryl Streep to the cast allows for exploring some deeper avenues. Among the new characters, her Loretta is a great interpretation of the late bloomer. A melancholic voiceover detailing her journey during the season premiere also reflects on the emotional strength of will needed to keep going despite endless rejection. Now that she’s in “Death Rattle,” this could mean real change but it also comes with new bumps along the road. During her first table read, Loretta tries out a Scottish accent, talks about her method and later seems to fall into the pitfall of trying to take the relationship with Oliver into a romantic level. For Streep it’s another great role, combining low-key humor with just enough sadness. It’s the opposite of Rudd, who is both over-the-top and later grounded. When Ben appears as a kind of mental apparition to Mabel, the moment becomes endearing as he tells her about how late blooming is fine, the point is not wasting time.

A whole crop of suspects is essential and once again we get good ones this season. There’s Kimber (Ashley Park), an influencer who might have been hooking up with Ben, Jonathan (Jason Veasey), the boyfriend of Howard (Michael Cyril Creighton), Oliver’s assistant, and Tobert (Jesse Williams), Ben’s official videographer. The ones given lesser space are given enough material to be quite hilarious. Others like Tobert, gradually becoming both funnier and more suspicious. Mabel and the cameraman start getting close, leading to Tobert sharing epic stories of his time filming in the wild, describing full-heartedly the plight of baby elephants. With Martin still writing and producing, the comedy also knows when to get wildly absurd, like a security guard who turns out to be a Ben stalker, photo-shopping himself into pictures with the actor. Charles also has to confess that he once got a child actor Ben fired from his hit show from long ago, “Brazzos.” So, Ben came into “Death Rattle” with revenge in his own mind. Clues like errant handkerchiefs are strewn around and interrogating suspects gets tricky. Charles and Oliver warn Mabel not to be so confident about her young age, since “you have old lady energy.”

The dramatic tension and stakes of the mystery get heightened this season by how the trio is also given convincing distractions. Charles has his girlfriend, Joy (Andrea Martin). Oliver has to scramble to save his production by convincing wealthy investors and pleading with venomous critics over negative reviews (thankfully?) delayed by Ben’s death. Peppered in are hilarious views into “Death Rattle” itself, including song numbers where Charles’s detective character has to interrogate babies in cradles who are potential murder suspects. One clearly senses Martin’s comedic influence all over such moments. It has become cliché, with murder mysteries being so in vogue recently, to evoke Agatha Christie. But her spirit is much more present in this season’s plot involving backstage intrigue and the melding between an onstage production and the case at hand.

A mood running through the subtext of this case is also the broader theme of holding on to talent, dreams and the somberness of time passing. Loretta has been struggling for so long and finally achieving a good role means becoming more urgent, even ruthless, to protect it. There are also awkward clashes with Oliver when another gig comes up, but he needs her to stay (despite some lingering and growing reservations) to keep the show going. Charles likes the feeling of being in a production again, but still clings to his “Brazzos” memories and legacy, and having near-hallucinatory moments when rehearsing certain song numbers. Oliver isn’t only worried about investors and critics, this play should be proof he can still be a giant in his field. You can make a name for yourself, but it remains a struggle to sustain it. The younger Mabel also feels life transitions coming her way, either from the apartment being sold to wondering what she will actually do with her life. Stability is the great, fleeting dream of millennials. These are big emotions but again packaged with great laughs and the engaging puzzle of solving the crime. “Only Murders in the Building” hasn’t lost its beat and with this cast, can still keep going for more cases.

Only Murders in the Building” season three begins streaming Aug. 8 with new episodes premiering Tuesdays on Hulu.