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Meryl Streep Steals the Spotlight in ‘Only Murders in the Building’ Season 3: TV Review

Meryl Streep has taken on some transformative roles in her time, but in the third season of “Only Murders in the Building,” the star takes on her biggest stretch yet. In her return to serialized TV, Streep plays Loretta, an actress without a scrap of Streep’s acclaim or success. It’s a part that pushes her limits as a performer, and the audience’s ability to suspend our disbelief.

Loretta is a member of the ensemble cast for “Death Rattle,” a baby-centric murder mystery that’s meant to mark the Broadway redemption for disgraced stage-director-turned-true-crime-podcaster Oliver Putnam (Martin Short). In last season’s finale, leading man Ben Glenroy (Paul Rudd) appeared to drop dead onstage, setting the plot for Oliver and his pal Charles-Haden Savage (the former TV actor played by Steve Martin) to once again team up with their millennial neighbor Mabel Mora (Selena Gomez) and investigate the case in real time for their thousands of podcast fans. “You lucky bitch!” seethes Cinda Canning (Tina Fey), the audio maven who’s now reinvented herself as a wellness type in Arianna Huffington drag. “It’s like these murders just fall in your lap!”

In this new season, the Hulu comedy seems conscious of managing the transition from breakout hit to consistent comfort. Overseen by creators Martin and John Hoffman, “Only Murders” is no stranger to meta commentary; the entire show is a gentle spoof of the true crime craze, and Martin’s character is best known in the “Only Murders” universe for playing the title detective in the procedural “Brazzos.” (Charles often attempts to apply his questionably accurate knowledge of real-life detective work to the podcast.) “Another female killer? That’s so done!” he laments of an early suspect, referencing the culprits in the first two installments of the series.

“Only Murders” must balance consistent pleasures — intergenerational banter, Manhattan provincialism, Mabel’s sweaters — with novel additions in order to endure. To that end, Season 3 is careful to note Ben’s connection to the Arconia, the grand Upper West Side complex where its protagonists reside, while shifting its focus to a new locale: the theater, a different hotbed of eccentric New Yorkers than a co-op board. There’s less focus on the making of the podcast itself, with Charles’ voiceovers instead outsourced to other members of the cast. And, of course, there’s Streep, who along with Rudd gets the special guest star credit of a visiting dignitary.

After all the fuss around Streep’s appearance in Season 2 of “Big Little Lies,” it’s both jarring and refreshing to see her gamely slot into a larger ensemble. Granted, Streep and Rudd each get their time in the spotlight; he gets to vamp it up as an egomaniac who made plenty of enemies before one finally snapped, while she becomes a muse and love interest for Short’s character. Ben Glenroy is famous for playing a superhero who transforms into a giant cobra, allowing Rudd to have some fun at the expense of his other gig in the MCU. Loretta, meanwhile, is a genuine talent who sometimes can’t resist adding an accent where the script doesn’t call for one. In light of Streep’s late-career starring roles, there’s a hint of self-parody in Loretta’s urge to go big.

But Loretta and Ben are just two egotistical thespians among many. “Only Murders in the Building” has always been a study in urban loneliness and isolation, giving emotional substance to what’s often a wacky farce. Broadway proves an ideal canvas for this theme, taking “Only Murders” out of the Arconia while introducing new players who’d feel right at home. There’s Kimber (Ashley Park), the ingenue hawking skin serum on TikTok, and Howard (Michael Cyril Creighton), Oliver’s assistant who nervously frets over a production in crisis. After the death of his star, Oliver’s Hail Mary pass is to rework “Death Rattle” into a musical, a tweak with ample comic potential. (The stage directions for the opening showstopper involve “crab men, breeding.”) While Oliver and Charles are distracted by the show, Mabel teams up with Tobert (Jesse Williams), a videographer who takes her friends’ place as co-investigator.

With Season 3, “Only Murders in the Building” no longer needs to establish itself or even prove it can follow up on its own success. Nor does it have to navigate the ethical dilemma of the true crime genre it satirizes, in which grisly misfortune becomes soothing entertainment. Instead, the show is free to cash in on its status with stars of Streep’s caliber, then integrate those actors into a story that increasingly has the makings of an adaptable institution. It’s no longer a surprise that Gomez enjoys such unlikely platonic chemistry with Martin and Short, or that Hoffman and Martin keep finding new ways to expand their characters’ insular world. It is a surprise, and a pleasant one, to see how that expansion takes shape, and who stops by to help fill the space.

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