‘Only Murders in the Building’s Biggest Strength Is Its World-Building

Sure, there’s all the corpses. But they’re surrounded by characters we want to follow home
‘Only Murders in the Building’s Biggest Strength Is Its World-Building

WARNING: Contains detailed spoilers for the first two seasons

Traditionally, the concept of “world-building” is used to describe IP-driven projects. When we’re introduced to a galaxy far, far away, do we understand how a lowly moisture farmer exists within a fascistic Empire? In a given Cinematic Universe, has the story track been laid to convince us that an all-powerful supervillain needs only to collect a certain number of jewels to snap half of all life on earth out of existence? How many arachnoid high school superheroes are required across all possible dimensions and timelines? 

While most comedy shows don’t require world-building, since their characters live in readily recognizable settings, some have larger canvases. The Simpson family (of The Simpsons) resides in a town that famously boasts a nuclear plant, a canyon and a raging tire fire. Pawnee, Indiana (as seen in Parks and Recreation) is fiercely proud of its idiosyncrasies, from citizens’ tendency to put their entire mouths on water fountains to their fond acceptance of a doomsday cult still barely operating. And Only Murders in the Building has created a whole apartment complex full of characters compelling enough to kill, be killed or serve as quirky witnesses. As a new season launches, its world-building deserves a moment of celebration.

Only Murders in the Building, which premiered its first season on Hulu in 2021, is set in and around the Arconia; the titular apartment building, on Manhattan’s Upper West Side, is played in the show by the Apthorp, a complex so desirable that even Nora Ephron, a wildly successful and critically acclaimed writer-director, was (famously) priced out in the mid-2000s. In the series premiere, a fire alarm drives all the residents out for a few hours. Three tenants who barely know each other — who, in fact, had shared a prickly elevator ride moments before the alarm — end up at the same nearby restaurant and realize they’re all obsessed with the same true-crime podcast. 

When they return to the building and find out that a fellow tenant died at home, apparently by suicide, while everyone was out, the trio’s podcast-honed suspicions are piqued. It’s meant to be: has-been theater director Oliver (Martin Short), has-been cop-show star Charles (Steve Martin) and never-was millennial Mabel (Selena Gomez) partner up to create their own podcast about what they’re sure was murder. (Spoiler, if the series title didn’t already give it away: They’re right!)

In the second-season premiere, when Amy Schumer (as “herself”) moves into the Arconia’s penthouse and starts working Oliver for the rights to adapt the podcast into a streaming series, one of her compliments is, “You guys just made it feel so… cozy,” and she’s right: cozy mystery is an actual pop-culture genre to which Only Murders definitely belongs, even if it does occasionally show a little more blood and guts than a typical episode of Father Brown. The world-building here is an integral facet of the Only Murders coziness: In the above-linked essay, Ephron writes that she never locked her door at the Apthorp, and Oliver says he never has either. Especially in the first season, half (or more) of the action takes place within the titular building, but it never feels claustrophobic. Rather, the setting feels expansive enough to supply all its residents’ needs, which may include the need for gossip fodder. 

The second episode of Season One brings us our first all-building meeting, in the form of a lobby memorial for the apparent suicide victim, Tim Kono (Julian Cihi). Everyone remembers Tim’s asthma was the reason they weren’t allowed to use the fireplaces in their units, but that’s only one reason a fellow tenant might want to kill him. There’s also one neighbor’s desire to buy Tim’s apartment and expand her own, or another’s grudge against Tim for disliking his adventurous cat. The pool of suspects, in Tim’s case, is largely defined by the vagaries of New York real estate; this is even more true when the second season revolves around the death of Bunny Folger (Jayne Houdyshell), the hated and feared head of the Arconia’s condo board.

The care taken with the portraits of even the slightest characters is a strength the show has revealed over time, as new stories have brought minor players to the fore. Bunny, for example, is a bit character in the first season whose multi-layered backstory unfolds in Season Two during the investigation into her murder. Howard (Michael Cyril Creighton) is introduced in Season One as a crazy cat owner. (How crazy? When his beloved Evelyn dies in the premiere, he replaces her with a kitten… also named Evelyn; she is, in fact, his seventh Evelyn, or Sevelyn.) But the second season gives him a hobby — he’s in a yodelshop quartet — and a love interest in new neighbor Jonathan (Jason Veasey); by the third season, Howard’s gotten a tiny bit closer to making his Broadway dreams come true with a job as Oliver’s assistant. We learn in the first season that Charles’ stunt double on his cop show, Brazzos, was a woman named Sazz Pataki (Jane Lynch) who still dresses and styles her hair exactly like him. This could have been a one-off gag, but it just makes so much sense for her to keep popping back in as a kind of emotional surrogate for the chilly, closed-off Charles. Each episode tends to pass the narration to a different character, which underscores the richness of the casting and the breadth of the show’s ambitions. The impression the viewer gets is that we could potentially follow any character into their own side story and be perfectly satisfied.

The casting also subverts expectations. Fans of episodic procedurals like Law & Order or Murder, She Wrote have been conditioned to expect that the murderer in any given episode is going to be the most famous guest star. But past red herrings include characters played by Tina Fey (podcast host Cinda Canning), Cara Delevingne (as visual artist/Mabel love interest Alice Banks), Shirley MacLaine (Bunny’s mother, Leonora Folger, OR SO WE ARE GIVEN TO BELIEVE) and Sting (like Schumer, playing a version of himself). 

The new season, which revolves around Oliver getting a chance to return to Broadway directing a whodunnit play, brings us by far the two biggest A-listers to recur. There’s Paul Rudd as Ben Glenroy, who’s making his Broadway debut after headlining a series of comic book films as “CoBro,” and whose collapse on-stage opening night closed a flashforward in the Season Two finale. Then there’s Meryl Streep as Loretta Durkin, a struggling actor whose casting opposite Ben represents the biggest break of her career. Will the show’s producers be able to resist having a Marvel-coded hack meet his end at the hands of The French Lieutenant’s Woman?

Though Only Murders is a gentle comedy rolled into a cozy mystery, there’s also a wish-fulfillment fantasy at its heart. In our three leads’ first scene together, in the Arconia’s elevator, we see Oliver trying to make a connection, only to be rebuffed by Charles and Mabel. If not for the surprise of the fire alarm, they wouldn’t end up at the local restaurant; if not for Oliver finding Charles listening to All Is Not OK In Oklahoma there with his phone speaker to his ear — and then Mabel finding them both there listening to the latest episode on Oliver’s laptop — the three of them might never have learned they have true crime in common. They could have continued on their separate paths, surviving but not really living. But that’s not what happens. Instead, three lonely people find each other, and in the course of collaborating on a project, they become the unlikeliest of friends. 

The Season Two episode “The Last Day of Bunny Folger” shows us… exactly what you think, including the comfortable, unremarkable time Bunny spent that day with her neighbor and best friend, Uma Heller (Jackie Hoffman). In Season Three, we join Uma as she remembers all the lunches she and Bunny shared together. Uma’s grieving, and may feel like she’ll never find another crotchety old bitch she vibes with like she did with Bunny. Ben, as we see in flashbacks, felt isolated by his crippling impostor syndrome. Oliver is surprised to see how elaborate a protective shell a former colleague has built around himself. Loretta has left her home and apparently made no friends in her pursuit of her mostly frustrated career goals. This is still a show about lonely people — but lonely people who don’t know they’ve been written into a story full of possibilities. Hell, Jan (Amy Ryan) dates Sazz after she’s convicted of the first season’s murder. 

So, given the meticulous construction of Only Murders, I have faith that Uma Heller won’t be lonely for long.

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