Directors: Brennan Shroff, Iain Morris
Developed by: Krister Johnson
Cast: Will Arnett, Hannefah Wood, Lilan Bowden, Philip Smithey, Conan O’Brien, Marshawn Lynch, Kumail Nanjiani, Annie Murphy, Sharon Stone, Ken Jeong
Cinematography: Kevin Atkinson
Editor: James Fitzpatrick, Maura Corey, Nicholas Gallucci
Streaming on: Netflix
Murderville, a six-episode Netflix crime comedy series, is Agatha Christie by way of improv class, an intriguing genre mash that works well when it leans on what it can control (the scripted central mystery) and less so when it comes to what it can’t (the guest performers’ ability to roll with the flow). The premise, adapted from British show Murder In Successville, is promising. Will Arnett plays Terry Seattle, a senior homicide detective that must investigate one murder mystery each episode with the help of a celebrity partner. The catch is that the sidekick hasn’t been given a script and so has to improvise their way through the case, collecting clues and figuring out who the murderer is by the end. This blend of murder mystery and comedy makes sense — the tropes of the detective genre are so well-established by now, they’re ripe for parody. Murderville does exactly this to great effect, making Seattle a legendary, yet down-on-his-luck detective, haunted by the death of his former partner and grappling with a disintegrating marriage. In pairing these familiar tropes with the unpredictability of improv, the show arrives at an experience that’s enjoyable in its absurdity, its goofy energy only deflating when a guest can’t rise to the occasion.
What makes the show consistently watchable is its murder plots, which are detailed and engrossing even though they’ve clearly been crafted for maximum comedic effect. In one, the murderer is caught on camera only for the suspects to be revealed as identical triplets. In another, the detectives investigate what is essentially a parody of The Social Network, attempting to determine whether an Eduardo Saverin-like character killed his former tech billionaire friend with a CD to the throat. When the guest stars aren’t adept at navigating the interrogation scenes, the suspects helpfully sprinkle in clues throughout their conversation, though arriving at the correct answer often means relying on much subtler observations. The audience gets as much information as the celebrity guests do, which makes solving the crime at home a particularly satisfying experience.
Each episode tests out just how game the celebrity sidekicks are by having Arnett contrive incredibly silly situations for them to act out, some of which land better than others. “You have never had a wetter sandwich,” is how he sells Conan O’Brien on the unappetizingly named ‘Sloppy Jalapen-Joes’ at a restaurant, proceeding to pour hot sauce all over it. O’Brien soldiers on, questioning a suspect in between bites of the spicy sandwich even as he tears up and turns red. While most guest stars lean into the role of a typical detective, only NFL player Marshawn Lynch really gets what the show is about, posing as someone completely unsuited to his new job in order to extract as much humour as he can from the premise. One of the first things he does is ask Terry to put in a name change request for him at City Hall, wanting his character to be called “Detective Bagabitch” (pronounced the “French way” as “Bagabiche”). Annie Murphy, on the other hand, is too respectful of detective procedures to be irreverent. A standout performer is Sharon Stone, who plays her detective character with an icy sarcasm, dropping lines like, “This bag is stickier than my last divorce.”
Some bits go on for too long and don’t pay off in terms of laughs, like Arnett coaxing Kumail Nanjiani to walk with a swagger, which ends up making him look like a pirate waddling about on a peg leg. The show’s improvisational format also means that the end product appears somewhat like a rough edit, with portions that should’ve been snipped out. Nanjiani’s tendency to break out into laughter in every scene breaks the immersion, as does Lynch’s breaking of the fourth wall to ask the camera crew if he can have a drink. Focus on just the crime-solving bits, however, and Murderville becomes one of the most fun mental exercises to be developed since Wordle.