We laugh loudest at the silliest things. A dazzling bit of wordplay, an insightful verbal joust, a fiendishly clever gag may have us smiling and sighing with admiration, but nothing guarantees a guffaw like something juvenile that takes us by surprise. It’s why Kramer gets the loudest laughs on Seinfeld, and why Tracy Morgan rules 30 Rock. In the new season of Only Murders In The Building (Disney+ Hotstar), Mabel Mora—played by Selena Gomez—talks about her rough childhood, where she and her mother would be in the same flat but apart, separated by grief and frustration.
Yet, once a week, mother and daughter were united by jokes. Mabel would laugh at a show she watched regularly, and would hear an echo from her mother’s room. “For 30 minutes a week,” she says, “I was laughing with my mom again, even if we were in different rooms.” It’s hard to overstate the unifying power of the medium, and silly television can get us through the worst of times. Only Murders In The Building, created by Steve Martin and John Hoffman, is light entertainment that delivers snickers with the reliability of a candy bar. One starts smiling before the wrapper is open all the way. (Those jaunty, New Yorker-y opening credits have me beaming each time.)
This time the plot seems to have been misplaced. The murder, and its investigation, feel almost incidental in this third season, as does the podcast at the heart of the series, a podcast started by three true-crime fans investigating murders in their upscale Manhattan building—where, by now, rents must surely be falling hard. The murder-comedy genre, kick-started by the Knives Out films (Netflix), is thriving, with deliciously plotted films like the self-aware See How They Run (Disney+ Hotstar), while shows like The Afterparty (Apple TV+) and Based On A True Story (JioCinema) get sharper. The latter satire—about true-crime fans making a podcast in collaboration with a serial killer—is particularly influenced by Only Murders, but beats it at its own game.
Except Only Murders In The Building, I feel, is playing an entirely different game. It’s a throwback, a show wistful for a different time in television, a different type of New York, and a different time in romance. Steve Martin, Martin Short and Selena Gomez make for an incredibly odd crime-solving throuple, but therein lie the show’s (somewhat square) charms. Murder is but a pretext for these three to riff together, and this year these Manhattanites who fly solo are in the mood for love. This season, the series gifts us one of the most unlikely romances across television.
Meryl Streep is fantastic at comedy. This is no stretch given her excellence across genres, true, but I have always loved the way Streep pulls the rug out from under an expected punchline, sometimes with an eyebrow, sometimes with a question-mark. She dazzles across comedies of every colour, from Death Becomes Her (1992) to Manhattan (1979), from Defending Your Life (1991) to The Devil Wears Prada (2006). She joins the trio this season, playing an ingénue, Loretta, a greying performer who has waited her life for her big theatrical break, an actress who is—at least at the first table-read—awful with accents.
Her director fights for her. Right from the start, Martin Short’s Oliver Putnam has seen something special in Streep—a highly believable notion—and he can’t get enough of Loretta, even when everyone else tells him she’s bringing his play down. Putnam can’t get enough of this mousy yet elegant woman, and she him. There’s something in the way she laughs too eagerly at his words, the way both of them make up name-droppy showbiz stories, and the way he—otherwise vainglorious and boasting at every chance—is unafraid to let his ego down around Loretta, laughing deliriously even with a broken tooth. It’s touchingly tender.
Streep can do anything—including make Short look surprisingly tall—and she deals with her overwrought character, a character dripping with secrets and motives, with style. When her agent tells her she’s being considered for an animated turkey movie, Streep looks thoughtful as she touches her neck with her fingers, feeling her own wattle while, for one brief moment, thinking of the life that has led her to this possibility. “You’ve got heat!” exclaims Short, and Streep melts into immediate shyness. These 70-somethings are beautiful together.
Broadway legend Matthew Broderick has a perfect cameo, playing himself as an unbearable perfectionist. “For my role in Election,” he explains, “I started teaching high school, and dating some students.” Steve Martin bristles at the sight of Broderick, claiming that he was meant to have Broderick’s role in the 1986 classic, Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Eventually, Short takes his friend’s side, saying “I bet you would have made a much better Ferris.” “Do you mean that?” asks Martin, utterly overwhelmed. “Oh,” says Short, affectionate but unable to lie this hard, “I want to!”
The other addition to the cast is Paul Rudd, as a star performer best known for playing Co-Bro: a half-man, half-snake hero—not all that far removed from a hero who shrinks to ant size. Rudd is fine but unchallenged by the material, somewhat like Gomez, a gifted deadpan comedienne who isn’t given enough to do. Yet both have infectious amounts of fun within this all-star cast of ticklers. Only Murders In The Building may be nonsense when it comes to plots and twists, but it’s a solid dessert. As fruitcakes go, there are enough nuts here to ensure a good time.
Comedies starring Meryl Streep can be found on every streaming platform. The Devil Wears Prada can be rented on Apple TV/Google Play, The Fantastic Mr. Fox is on MUBI, Don’t Look Up is on Netflix, Mamma Mia! is on Amazon Prime Video, and Adaptation is on Lionsgate Play.
Raja Sen is a screenwriter and critic. He has co-written Chup, a film about killing critics, and is now creating an absurd comedy series. He posts @rajasen.