Cozy murder is back!
Season three of the Hulu mystery series Only Murders in the Building returns Tuesday, August 8, with stars Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez reprising their roles as unlikely sleuths Charles, Oliver and Mabel. The neighbors-turned-friends are back to solving crimes and podcasting about it.
Besides being awards fodder, Only Murders in the Building is, simply, good TV. It features the dark side of existence —murder does power the plot— but keeps a positive view of human nature, finding comedy in its characters’ flaws while offering them warm acceptance. Last season revolved around who killed building board chair Bunny, the toughest type of New York old lady, portraying her as someone with a deep interior life without excusing her gruff demeanor.
This season jumps in the future as Oliver sees his hopes (of successfully reviving his Broadway career) dashed when his leading man dies on stage. Paul Rudd plays the victim, Ben Glenroy, a Hollywood schmuck whose terrible behavior gives pretty much everyone who comes in contact with him a motive for murder.
Part of the reason Only Murders in the Building works is that the mystery is so compelling. The show may be just as invested in comedy as character development, but it never loses the thread of its whodunit. And as with its previous two seasons, the show excels in misdirecting viewers, moving suspicions from one character to the next with ease. As the episodes unfold, it’s a wild ride of suspects that doesn’t end until the season’s over.
Hulu gave the first eight episodes to critics and while I have a theory about what happened to Ben, I’d wager that my best guess is wrong because that’s just how this show works.
And work it does, thanks also to its aesthetic. From the opening credits to the costumes and sets, Only Murders in the Building is an impeccably designed show. Each element, from Mabel’s coats to Charles’ minimalist apartment, tells us something about what’s happening on screen: how the characters are feeling, how they see themselves, what they want others to think about them. It makes for a rich viewing experience in which little details come and go, and even if they don’t reveal who killed who, each clue does say something.
Part of the aesthetic too is a winking self-consciousness. Each season has featured the play-within-a-play trope, and the third season ratchets that meta element up. Oliver’s play is, of course, a mystery (though the suspects are… babies). There’s also the podcast that tells the story that Mabel and company are discovering.
While the second season leaned a bit too hard on this element —remember all those jokes about sophomore slumps?— the third season gets it just right, using its constructed hall of mirrors to better tell the story rather than just decorate it.
Of course, powering it all is a stellar cast. The first two seasons featured amazing guests, and season three is no different, with the one and only Meryl Streep as Loretta Durkin. She’s joined not just by Rudd but also Jesse Williams, as smoldering as ever. Plus, favorites from previous seasons are back offering little gifts to longtime fans while moving the plot along as they go.
And in the center are the two famed old guys, delivering their performances with heart and humor, plus our Latina Selena Gomez. As Mabel Mora, she holds her own —even if the Emmys haven’t seen it that way— rounding out the trio by being the odd woman out, younger and poorer but no more quirky or troubled.
Each of the leading three has their issues, and Only Murders in the Building doesn’t pathologize them, but instead spends time prodding the leads to grow, even just a little. This season, they each get a love interest, pushing them out of their respective solitudes.
Might this backfire on at least one of them spectacularly, as it did in the first season? We don’t know yet.
I will say, though, that it’s nice to see Mabel not saddled with more trauma. While the first season revolved around the deaths haunting her childhood and the second showed us how her father died when she was young, the third season gives us more of thriving Mabel. Bad things still happened to her but they don’t control her. This is a Mabel who’s been to therapy and it shows.
And here’s where I tell you there’s no Latinx angle to this show. Yes, Selena Gomez is one of the most famous Latinas of her generation. And, yes, her character Mabel is Latina, shaped by her Latinx family and upbringing. But the show isn’t about that. It never dwells on her latinidad, and while we’ve learned some of Mabel’s backstory in previous seasons, those facts are all established by now.
Instead, Mabel’s Latinidad simply exists, next to Oliver’s theater eccentricity and Charles’ protestant inability to feel. The show moves on and we can too, simply enjoying a well-put-together series that portrays a diverse version of New York City that includes Latinas—as it should.
Cristina Escobar is the entertainment reporter for Latino Rebels. She is also the co-founder of latinamedia.co, uplifting Latina and gender non-conforming Latinx perspectives in media. She’s a member of the Latino Entertainment Journalists Association and writes at the intersection of race, gender, and pop culture. Twitter: @cescobarandrade