What to Watch Verdict
'Only Murders in the Building' continues its quick and assured ascent as one of the best shows of the year with this confident episode.
The overall story's twistiness is both effectively surprising and logical
The core trio continues to be a delight to watch
Mabel's relationship with Oscar is turning into a solid subplot
Casting Nathan Lane against type has worked wonders
With only so many characters involved, there's some easy guesses as to who's behind the plot, which may rob the final episodes of surprises
Amy Ryan's presence remains far too minimal
In last week’s recap of Only Murders in the Building, I highlighted the standby rule from the late film critic Roger Ebert, the Law of Economy of Characters. That law basically states that there are no unnecessary characters in a film (or, in this case, a TV show). In last week’s case, the law’s application was simple: if an actor listed in the opening credits of a new original show, one whose season lasts just 10 episodes, has barely made an appearance in the first few episodes, they’re no doubt going to be of importance later on. Why else list them in the opening credits? The law can be applied in two different ways this week, however, both tied to guest stars. In the premiere episode, the audience and our trio of heroic would-be true-crime podcasters encountered the police in the form of the grouchy Detective Williams, who sees the death of Tim Kono as an open-and-shut case. And a couple episodes later, our heroes get lucrative sponsorship in the form of Teddy Dimas, a fellow tenant who happens to run a successful New York deli chain.
But here’s the thing. When you cast those two characters with actors like Da’Vine Joy Randolph and Nathan Lane, respectively...well, sure, they might only make a single-episode appearance. Why cast such talented actors, though? (Randolph is a Tony-nominated performer, and she made a big splash in last year’s Hulu adaptation of High Fidelity. Lane...well, you ought to know who Nathan Lane is after multiple Tony Awards, voicing Timon in The Lion King, and more.) So the sixth episode, “To Protect and Serve”, clarifies that the Law of Economy of Characters applies in two very key ways, as both Detective Williams and Teddy Dimas return and do so in important fashion. Though Detective Williams disdains the work, a word she’d likely use with air quotes, that Charles (Steve Martin), Oliver (Martin Short), and Mabel (Selena Gomez) are doing in their podcast, she ends up helping them out so they can do the work she can’t. And Teddy Dimas both gives our podcasters more money and potentially becomes their biggest suspect yet.
As was the case with “Twist,” this episode kicks off with narration from someone aside from Charles, Oliver, or Mabel. Instead, we hear from Detective Williams, who talks about a show that served as a major mental touchstone for her as a kid: Herman’s Head. Remember Herman’s Head? This was the Fox sitcom from the early 1990s where a cog in the corporate world was envisioned to have different emotions in his head represented by different actors. (Which is why it was brought up as a reductive comparison point when Pixar’s Inside Out was released in 2015.) The notion that Herman wasn’t really alone, because of the emotions personified in his mind, comforted Detective Williams back when she was just a kid who assumed everyone was inherently by themselves, from birth to death. In the present, Detective Williams returns to her apartment and her partner (Alysha Deslorieux), who’s working on the nursery for their son, whose name they’re continuing to debate. After a couple minutes, she notices that the podcast her partner’s listening to isn’t just some random true-crime podcast -- it’s “Only Murders in the Building”, and the crime being discussed is what she perceived to be an open-and-shut suicide. (There’s a fun callback when her partner admits she only started listening because the Yard Dogs from last week’s episode called it out on Twitter.)
While Detective Williams heads back to the precinct for some nighttime sleuthing to see if she missed something that a few random Arconia tenants spotted, we cut back to those same tenants still aghast at the jewelry that Mabel reveals Tim Kono was hoarding before his untimely death. Mabel’s tattoo-shop-owner cousin Tavo reveals that there’s one particularly important piece of jewelry that Tim was searching for, courtesy of the still-mysterious black-market jeweler Angel, that he was unable to procure. Before our trio and Oscar can find out what that jewelry was, a very displeased woman enters the shop: Mabel’s mother (Mandy Gonzalez).
Back at her house, Mabel’s mother chews into her daughter for continuing to live in the past, as Mabel explains a bit more of the backstory of the death of her friend Zoe and how Oscar was pinned for the death to Charles and Oliver. Mabel’s mother, both in the larger group setting and privately to Charles and Oliver, begs them to cut ties and leave the sleuthing in the past. This exhortation briefly seems like it’s going to take. Charles, particularly, is shook (“Mabel taught me that word”, he tells Oliver) by the realization that a true-crime story is true for someone. “And you’re just realizing this now?”, Oliver asks him tartly. But before they can put the podcast in the past, Oliver gets an all-caps text from Teddy Dimas. Both he and Charles visit, and are shocked to see that their little show has gotten a big boost, courtesy of Cinda Canning (Tina Fey) while making an appearance on The Tonight Show with Jimmy Fallon. (Yes, that’s right, you get a little Weekend Update reunion in this episode.)
At first, neither Charles nor Oliver can get a read on Teddy -- whose business is called out, since the show is really called “Dimas Chicken Wraps presents Only Murders in the Building”. But Teddy is delighted, because Fallon is apparently quite popular in Greece, and he knows that getting the show and his business mentioned on national television is a huge gift. When he offers the two men a $50,000 check for further episodes, they’re initially iffy due to Mabel’s mother and her pleading. But then Teddy tells them a story of how his Ya-Ya (or, for the non-Greek among us, his grandmother) fled the Greek and Armenian holocausts for America with just two coins in her pocket. One she used to open a sandwich shop that morphed into Teddy’s current business, and the other she kept as a family heirloom. This at least convinces Charles and Oliver to take the check for the moment.
Mabel, meanwhile, spends some time reconnecting with Oscar in her old bedroom, replete with sixth-grade photos, heirlooms, and a cardboard cut-out of Christopher Meloni as Detective Stabler from Law and Order: SVU. Though Oscar had been in a relationship with Zoe before she was killed, it’s obvious enough that he’s held a torch for Mabel -- and that’s before they kiss on Mabel’s bed. Mabel can only focus on this new love connection for so long, though. First, she receives a texted image from Tavo of the jewel Tim was so desperate to get, a bright emerald of some kind. Then, she notices one of her old Hardy Boys photos of her friends, including Zoe...wearing that same bright emerald (and one that Oscar confirms was not on her hand when she died). Oscar, like Mabel’s mother, begs Mabel to move on, but she has to see things through.
Meanwhile, Detective Williams is surprised to realize while going through the paperwork related to Tim Kono’s death that there may be something to the “true crime fuck-nuts” and their theories. Why’s that? Well, first, she’s shocked to learn that the toxicology screen for Tim during his autopsy was never officially submitted, nor was his cell phone sent to the IT department for scanning. As she points out to her partner later, this isn’t something that can be chalked up to a slight accident -- if these items weren’t submitted, it’s because someone above her wants them to be unsubmitted. While she wants to move up in the ranks, she can’t help but want to see the case re-investigated...so she sends Tim’s phone anonymously to Mabel.
Good timing, too -- in the final scene, Charles and Oliver decide they should rip up Teddy’s check because they don’t want to profit off of Mabel’s past tragedies. But before they can do anything rash, Charles notices something curious on the check. The account listed on the check isn’t Teddy’s deli business, but tied to his old Ya-Ya and her nickname: Angel. Could Teddy be the same black-market jeweler Tim was searching for? (Tavo noted that Tim was supposed to meet with Angel at the tattoo shop the day that Charles, Oliver, and Mabel arrived, but we never find out who that mysterious figure was.) At the same time, Mabel arrives to explain that she’s still all in on the project, revealing that she’s received Tim’s phone even though they can’t figure out its passcode.
Is it appropriate for Teddy to be the prime suspect in the murder of Tim Kono? Certainly the fact that his other business shares a name with the mysterious jeweler is hard to avoid. Having said that, and noting that Nathan Lane is convincingly a bit more menacing here than you might expect from some of his past roles (or at least far less loquacious), this episode would seem to throw a wrench in that theory before it’s even presented. If Teddy is the bad guy, would he really be thrilled to have the show he’s sponsoring, and his own business, mentioned on national television? There’s only so much risk you can live with when you’re bankrolling private investigators to sniff out a crime you committed. Right?
“To Protect and Serve” begins the second half of Only Murders in the Building, and the show only continues to get better. It’s getting to the point now where the only bad thing about this show is that there’s only four episodes left. Each episode has been an incredible blend of character-based comedy and genuinely intriguing mystery, with characters who are smart enough to ask the same kinds of questions that the audience would ask. It’s not just that Martin, Short, and Gomez are all a lot of fun to watch together and separately, but that the writing of the show has allowed each of their characters multiple dimensions.
With just four episodes left, there are now really two questions left over from last week which remain unanswered. First, and perhaps less pressing, is when and how Amy Ryan as Jan will return to the show. (It’s weird, if nothing else, that six episodes in, Tina Fey has clocked more appearances here than Ryan, and the latter is a regular cast member.) The more pressing question is one that will hover over each successive episode like a darkening storm cloud: is Only Murders in the Building going to resolve itself effectively? The good news is, we’re getting to the point where the show’s buildup is so entertaining that it might not need to have an equally enjoyable ending.
Josh Spiegel is a freelance cultural critic who has been published in Slashfilm, SyFy, ScreenCrush, The A.V. Club, The Hollywood Reporter, The Washington Post and others. His favorite films include Singin’ in the Rain, The Rocketeer, Pinocchio and A Matter of Life and Death. His favorite TV shows include Ted Lasso, Only Murders in the Building, Deadwood and Lost. He lives in Phoenix with his wife, two sons and too many cats.
By Lucy Buglass