One of the greatest love stories of our times is currently playing out on TV—and no one seems to be talking about it.
It’s the story of two frustrated, aging artists whose talents have never been recognized. Their paths have crossed before, but, like ships (or perhaps more like ferries) in the night, they’ve always just missed each other. And so, they’ve been traipsing around New York City, their matching statement scarves tossed artfully over their shoulders, trying against all hope to make their dreams come true. When they finally meet, it’s like lightning has struck—instantly, they see the artistic potential in each other that no one else could. “Where have you been?” he asks her.
I am talking, of course, about the improbable love story of Loretta and Oliver in Only Murders in the Building.
Oliver, one of the show’s core trio, is played by the always-hilarious Martin Short, no matter what that misbegotten writer at Slate said (ticking off the entire internet while he was at it). Loretta, a newcomer this season, is played by none other than Meryl Streep. The Oscar-winning actress is an unlikely addition to any Hulu show, but she supposedly asked to join the cast after a Zoom call with old pals Short and his Only Murders co-star Steve Martin.
(Warning: Spoilers ahead for the most recent episode of Only Murders.)
When the cast was first announced, a friend of mine made a prediction: Streep would only have agreed to join the cast if she was going to play the murderer. Well, by the very dramatic ending of Episode 8, which premiered Tuesday, it seems clear that Streep’s Loretta is probably not the killer—instead, Loretta offers meaty acting material for Streep in other, possibly more interesting, ways. She’s an actor who never got her shot, but who quietly, doggedly kept pursuing her dream—even when that meant giving up her only son for adoption. Plus, she’s a woman “of a certain age” who is given not only a late-in-life shot at artistic success, but also one at love.
The story behind Oliver and Loretta’s pairing in the series is actually quite brief, but thanks to impeccable writing, detailed performances, and effortless chemistry, in about six scenes, they have become one of the best TV couples… maybe ever.
Their relationship is built on a strong foundation: their shared passion for and belief in the magic of the theater. After a near perfect lightning bolt meet-cute in which Loretta blows Oliver away during her audition for his play, their relationship unfolds over the course of several impossibly delicate, sweet scenes. A pattern emerges: In the face of mass doubt and zero interest from the cast and producers, Oliver and Loretta keep seeing each other’s potential.
After Loretta’s disastrous table read, Oliver sticks up for her. Similarly, Oliver, who is known only for such Broadway flops as the ill-fated Splash!, in which Oliver squandered his budget with an actual pool into the stage floor. He takes what is the already questionable play (Death Rattle) that he had been working on the previous season and turns it into what appears on the surface to be a truly unhinged musical, complete with breeding crabmen, now called Death Rattle Dazzle. However, Loretta sees past the wackiness and helps him uncover the real heart of the show. “What I love about… Oliver Putman’s shows is that underneath all the bombast and the chaos and the breeding crab men, it’s just there’s a vulnerability,” she says. “That’s what makes Oliver Putman special… as a director.”
Later, in a last ditch attempt to save his musical, Oliver asks Loretta to sing the Nanny’s lullaby. Her performance is the epitome of theatrical magic—somehow, she seems to memorize the lyrics in a matter of moments before delivering a fully embodied, mesmerizing rendition of the song. Earlier, when Oliver was writing the music, no one in the room took any notice—in fact, they were fast asleep. Only Loretta seems to get it and together, they create magic. I never thought I’d be swooning over Martin Short and Meryl Streep, but the look they share as she finishes the song is so full of depth and understanding and love that I couldn’t help it.
Next up for the best couple ever: a painfully awkward, yet impossibly sweet first date, in which can be seen some of the most cringe-worthy moments of television ever created. For instance, Short accidentally lowers her foldaway bed and actually utters the words, “Dinner before dessert.” Things get worse when he loses a tooth while chomping into her overcooked pork chop.
But what could have been the worst date ever soon blossoms into yet another magical moment. Loretta takes him on the Staten Island Ferry, where she explains that her mother used to take her after she lost a tooth as a little girl—because, you know, “tooth ferry.” As their nerves settle, they discover that they were both at the same birthday party in the ’70s. Loretta brought a joint rolled in a purple streamer that she took from the party all those years ago and, it turns out, Oliver was the one who had rolled it. It’s fate! They are meant to be! If only they had met in the ’70s, they could have been creating shows together, smoking joints, and sharing scarves all of this time!
Later, we are treated to a vision of Short lounging with Loretta on the drop-down bed. He’s wearing her dressing gown—despite the disastrous dinner, they evidently made it to “dessert.”
In the latest episode, their relationship develops further. After their date, Oliver steals a creepy book he discovers in her apartment that seems to be a stalkerish collection of photos of murder victim Ben Glenroy (Paul Rudd). It really is, it turns out, a book of photos of Ben’s adopted brother and Loretta’s biological son, Dickie. Oliver returns it and underhandedly asks for an explanation. She is understandably annoyed and disappointed. “You don’t trust me,” she says sadly. Later, Oliver pulls her aside and delivers one of the loveliest romantic speeches in TV history:
“I do trust you and I don’t care about the book. I don’t care about any of it. I just want to be with you. To do our show, excuse me, our hit show and go back to your funny little apartment and just fall asleep in your arms. And there’s more. And it’s a biggie. I love you. Wow, I haven’t said those words in a minute. You know what it felt right so I’m going to say it again. Here it goes. I love you.”
I never expected Oliver Putnam to be one of TV’s best romantic heroes. After all, we knew him only as a slightly manic gut milk-drinking, dip-loving, director of Broadway flops. And yet, somehow, in eight short episodes, he has become one.
When, moments later, Loretta takes the fall for the sake of her son and confesses to Ben’s murder, Oliver is so upset he has another heart attack as she’s carted off by the police—he is literally heart broken. It’s perhaps more Shakespearean and melodramatic than Only Murders has any right to be, but thanks to their beautifully crafted relationship and skilled performances, we completely buy it.
Although their love story is beautifully written, it is the two actors’ chemistry and understated performances that really make the romance work.
While it may be thought of as nothing more than a slightly silly Hulu show, Only Murders is shaping up to be a showcase of Streep at her best. She brings a fullness to Loretta that shines through in every scene. You can sense her long history of lonely striving, her underlying quiet determination. When we see her in her apartment, with its cozy reading nook and makeshift pull down bed and careful sentimental clutter, it makes perfect sense thanks to Streep’s deft portrayal. Of course that's where Loretta lives! As for Short, when he’s bouncing off of Streep, he brings remarkable new depths and subtleties to Oliver. The pairing of Streep and Short is an endless delight.
Perhaps most delightful of all is the simple fact that it’s rare to see an older couple’s love story play out with such sincerity. “I’ll never forget Meryl saying to me—I mean it’s ridiculous—she said, ‘Thank you for this,’” showrunner and director John Hoffman said in the podcast Only Murders in the Pod. “She said, ‘No, I really mean it. It’s the romance.’” For people who are older, he explained, you never see a love story “that’s not twee, that’s not about her age, that makes perfect sense.”
I would also like to thank John Hoffman for the romance—because in my opinion, it is one of the best things on TV this year.