Bunny Folger has really and truly left the building. The once-feared building board president — and star murder victim in season two of Hulu’s Emmy-winning mystery-comedy Only Murders in the Building (★★★★☆) — is gone from the show’s charming animated opening, replaced with another longtime resident of the Arconia apartments: sweater-loving librarian Howard Morris, wonderfully played by Michael Cyril Creighton.
The switch signals we’ll be seeing a lot more of Howard in season three, which takes several risks that mostly pay off, including shuffling the deck of its principal cast.
Also, following two seasons that found the show’s sleuthing trio of Mabel (Selena Gomez), Charles (Steve Martin), and Oliver (Martin Short) prowling the secret passages and crawlspaces of their landmark Upper West Side apartment building, the show hits the road, moving much of the action downtown to the Broadway theater where Oliver is directing his long-awaited return to the stage, a creaky-looking mystery called Death Rattle.
The show within the show, tipped off in the cliffhanger conclusion of last season, allows for a refreshing new mix of familiar faces from the show — like Howard and his seemingly sweet singer-actor boyfriend, Jonathan (A Strange Loop‘s Jason Veasey) — as well as faces familiar from Broadway and, say, the last half-century of pop culture.
Paul Rudd and Meryl Streep join the cast, portraying, respectively, Ben Glenroy, a spoiled rotten movie star making his Broadway debut in Death Rattle, and Loretta Durkin, a down-on-her-luck stage actress also making her Broadway debut, after many, many failed attempts. With Ben, the show’s writers don’t reinvent the joke of the vapid Hollywood actor, but rather just let the fact that it’s America’s ageless sweetheart Paul Rudd playing this asshole do most of the work.
Rudd’s commitment to the role will have viewers wondering where in his career the actor might have encountered a star so obnoxiously self-centered. Although, there’s only limited time to ponder, since, as was also tipped off last season, and in this season’s trailers, Ben drops dead onstage on the opening night of Death Rattle. But neither his apparent murder, nor the efforts of Mabel, Charles, and Oliver to solve it — as well as save Oliver’s comeback — will be so cut-and-dried.
The show packs in twists, confessions, betrayals, and delightful surprises, not the least of which is seeing Streep play, perhaps for the first time, a mediocre actress with no facility for doing accents. At the Death Rattle company’s first read-through of the script, Loretta gives a performance so hilariously wrong that it seems certain her days in the show will be numbered.
But Oliver sees something special in her, another knocked-around stage vet like himself, due for redemption, even glory. He won’t let murder get in the way of his big chance, or hers.
Short, as has been the case consistently, provides the brightest comic spark, yet also this time takes Oliver to a deeper place of longing, even desperation to succeed with this show. Oliver also fixates a bit on Loretta, and his laser-focused preoccupations with her and with his show alienate his buds Charles and Mabel.
Having the lead threesome estranged from one another, or at each other’s throats, feels like a predictable way to tease out tension three seasons in, but Short, Martin, and Gomez make that tension sting, which, in turn, adds to their sense of camaraderie during the good times.
Always up for a good time, Martin continues in a relatively subdued mode as ’90s TV star Charles — referred to by one character as “the has-been with the hair” — though he gets to break out some brilliant physical comedy when Charles is handed the hardest song to sing in the new, post-murder, musical version of Death Rattle.
The tune, “Which of the Pickwick Triplets Did It?,” was written by the Tony-winning team of Marc Shaiman and Scott Wittman, who, along with Tony winners Benj Pasek and Justin Paul, and Michael R. Jackson, composed a collection of hummably funny showtunes. Charles might not be a great musical talent, but Steve Martin is, so his number truly sings.
Charles also continues to romance his former TV makeup lady, Joy (Andrea Martin, not really clicking here), but their subplot is not as compelling as the Oliver and Loretta pairing, and the oddball match of Martin Short and Meryl Streep. In one endearing sequence, Oliver and Loretta go on a date, smoking a J on a ferry cruising around New York Harbor, while discovering through conversation the many times they almost crossed paths before.
By some stroke of coincidence, at last, a meeting that seemed destined has finally occurred, one mystery of life solved — while another deadly mystery looms over a satisfying new chapter for one of the most enjoyable genre-mashes on television.
Season three of Only Murders in the Building premieres on August 8, with new episodes available for streaming weekly every Tuesday on Hulu. Visit www.hulu.com.
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