Will Arnett has been able to use his Lee Strasberg Institute-trained baritone and subversive intensity for various distinct stages in his career—case in point “Murderville,” which blends his sarcastically serious “Lego Masters” hosting charisma with his way around a comedy universe. Debuting on February 3rd on Netflix, the light-hearted crime show is all about improv, in which Arnett’s dopey detective Terry Seattle works with a celebrity guest in solving a murder. The intriguing catch is that the guest does not know the script. Arnett is all about keeping the show in character, while flinging different absurd surprises on a famous face trying to make their way through an episode.
This first season features a mix of funny people with a few intriguing left-field choices: you get Conan O’Brien in the pilot (a great pick, and one that Arnett seems to relish), but then it’s about Marshawn Lynch of the Seattle Seahawks playing along. Later on it’s Kumail Nanjiani, Annie Murphy, Sharon Stone, and Ken Jeong. Arnett has them interview suspects, participate in strange gauntlet challenges (like when he makes O’Brien eat hot sauce-covered food before questioning a server), and often gives them an earpiece, usually the most reliably funny construct of the show. And “Murderville” has a tiny game show edge to it, in that it doesn’t just want you to laugh along with its clever serials, but follow clues and guess who the killer is. This aspect of the show is supported by a funny ensemble of suspects and cops that help fill in the world, including Haneefah Wood as Chief Rhonda Jenkins-Seattle, Terry’s soon-to-be ex-wife and bombastic master of ceremonies who always puts these celebs on the spot. She more than matches Arnett's energy, and helps "Murderville" have a cozy, goofy charm.
This all was based on a previously successful BBC series named “Murder in Successville,” starring Tom Davis, whose on-screen presence is even more serious than Arnett’s here. From what I’ve seen from that show, the tact is slightly different—it’s more about trying to get a guest to break character than to see how much they can play along. That BBC approach better seems to work better, given that "Murderville" is in part about being immersed in this gritty lighting that resembles a real, crummy cop show and then bam—you remember you're watching an elaborate joke, because someone has just been thrown out of sync by something so silly. Whenever the guest laughs, we usually do too.
It feels odd to say this about something with improv, but the entertainment of “Murderville” can often come down to guest casting. Some people are more about letting the strange comedy happen around them, while others are better at getting their hands dirty (Sharon Stone in episode five, for example). The angle of a guest improvising can be a toss-up, which makes for some more comically dynamic episodes than others. And sometimes the guest’s breaking of character isn’t as common in the edit. It's almost like "Murderville" would benefit from stranger picks, whether they are improv-ready or not.
A show like “Murderville” is essentially hit and miss by default, in that some sequences are clearly more successful in getting a good reaction that others. But it has enough comic spark, and it's clever in how it indulges our constant fixation with the competency of solving crimes, while winding up its own absurd plots. Here’s hoping to a second season, but also one that features even more surprising casting choices, and that works even harder to catch them off-guard.
Six episodes screened for review. The first season of "Murderville" premieres on February 3rd on Netflix.