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Netflix's Murderville hits that perfect spot in the Venn diagram between obvious and unhinged

  • "When you’re stuck in the miserable February doldrums, nothing hits as well as extremely silly television," says Kathryn VanArendonk. "It is the time of year for silly TV with no stakes, no mental energy required, and no point whatsoever beyond being surpassingly ridiculous, preferably in a way that makes people giggle uncontrollably. For that exact feeling, your best bet right now is the new Netflix crime-solving improv show, Murderville. Murderville’s premise hits that perfect spot in the Venn diagram between obvious and unhinged. It’s an adaptation of a British show (Murder in Successville, which is available on Britbox). In the American version, Will Arnett plays Terry Seattle, a hard-boiled noirish detective. In every episode, his police chief–slash–ex-wife, played by Haneefah Wood, introduces Terry to a new partner hired to solve this episode’s murder case. The partners are all celebrities who play themselves. They also have no idea what’s going to happen. While Arnett and a cast of performers act out various absurd crime-solving scenes, the celebrities — Conan O’Brien, Marshawn Lynch, Annie Murphy, Kumail Nanjiani, Sharon Stone, and Ken Jeong — try to play along while also trying to solve the case. Think murder-mystery dinner party plus improv crossed with the oddly cruel games Ellen DeGeneres makes guests play on her talk show but with higher production values and a decent budget for props." VanArendonk adds: "Arnett’s flexibility and playfulness are key to making Murderville work, but strong celebrity casting is what keeps its fairly predictable shtick from getting boring. Murderville manages to be as adaptable as its players."

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    • Murderville should've been an SNL sketch, not a series: "It's such a thin construct that most of the burden falls on Arnett to keep the silliness quotient high, and while he can vamp with the best of them, the process yields diminishing returns," says Brian Lowry. "Indeed, this is one of those shows where spreading out the viewing, as opposed to bingeing, helps considerably, since consuming more than one in a sitting quickly becomes numbing. As ideas go, Netflix gets points for trying something a little bit different, but the result mostly serves as a reminder that trying to be goofy is hard work. Murderville is a nice place to visit, but finally doesn't generate enough consistent laughs to make it worth hanging around for long."
    • Marshawn Lynch steals the spotlight in Murderville: "While the mysteries are silly enough to keep the celebrities entertained on set, it’s up to how well the celebrities adapt to each increasingly ridiculous scenario to keep their viewers engaged, too," says Caroline Framke, adding: "It’s not shocking that some of the comedic actors are better than others at improv’ing their way through the mysteries, but it’s still a bit surprising at how many of them stick so closely to the 'yes, and' ethos that they mostly just act as Arnett’s sidekick rather than putting their own spin on things. The major exception to this rule, and therefore the unequivocal highlight of the six-episode season, is former NFL star Marshawn Lynch. The second he walks into Terry’s office, Lynch brings something different, confident, and genuinely hilarious to the table. While everyone else tries to give a relatively straight answer to Terry’s opening 'why do you want to be a homicide detective?' question, for example, Lynch gives a good-natured shrug. 'Sh*t, I don’t know,' he says, before stealing the scene entirely by asking if he can change his name to 'Detective Bagabitch.”'(When Arnett asks if 'Bagabitch' is Russian, Lynch barely blinks before saying it’s “Oak(land) native.') Throughout the entire episode, Lynch’s endearing willingness to not just embrace the bonkers brief he’s been given, but be completely himself, make his episode the show’s most engaging by a mile. It truly doesn’t matter whether or not Lynch solves the murder when he makes it this fun to watch him try."
    • Murderville is like an episode-length version of that pregnant pause you get right before someone breaks in a Saturday Night Live sketch: "You know it's coming. So do they," says Adam Rosenberg. "They're still trying to keep it professional, but we all know they're going to fail. There is joy in that failure. I love this show for the same reason we all love an unexpected SNL break. The comedic energy swings wildly across the show's six episodes, as each new partner brings their particular sensibilities to the concept. In Conan O'Brien's episode, the veteran late-night host's penchant for the absurd is on full display as he explains death to a small child and attempts an interrogation while eating food that's drowning in hot sauce. The vibe shifts abruptly in the next episode when NFL superstar Marshawn Lynch steps in. The infamously quirky and playful athlete doesn't just go toe-to-toe with Arnett, who actively works to keep every new partner off balance. Lynch shifts that balance in every scene, taking the improv ethos of 'yes, and' in unexpected directions. For instance, upon meeting Terry, Lynch asks to be called 'Detective Bagabitch.' Arnett visibly stalls as he works out how to get the scene back on his track."
    • Murderville takes all the things that made BBC's Murder in Successville great and throws them in the bin: Murder in Successville, which ran on BBC3 from 2015 to 2017, "was a startling flash of bottled chaos that deserves to be cherished," says Jack Seale. "It doesn’t deserve the new US remake, Murderville (Netflix), which hacks off the concept’s eccentric rough edges, then makes a mess of the less interesting show that’s left. As the sleeker title implies, Murderville streamlines the idea, and it makes one big change that does have a logic to it. The original was set in a town populated by celebrities, played by impressionists. 'Gordon Ramsay' was Sleet’s boss, while 'Simon Cowell' was the town mayor and so on, which added another layer of absurdity but complicated the format. Lose that, as Murderville does by having ordinary actors playing ordinary characters, and you can focus on each guest’s encounter with the star of the show – Will Arnett, in a crumpled suit and a moustache that refuses to stay stuck on, as unstable detective Terry Seattle. Another less welcome tweak becomes apparent, however, when you look at the guests. The British show favoured structured-reality stars, radio and TV presenters, and girl/boyband singers. Chucking these non actors into an entirely unfamiliar, immersive situation provoked unpredictable reactions...Murderville flings all that in the bin. Perhaps, the US doesn’t quite have the same depth and diversity as celebrity Britain, so it can’t cast the sort of self-ironising, famous-yet-normal types who made Murder in Successville such a pleasure. With the exception of former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch, the guests are all seasoned actors or comedians (and even Lynch has acted a bit, in Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Westworld). They’re not nearly uncomfortable enough. They’re just pros doing improv."
    • 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)," says Nick Allen. "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."
    • Murderville would work a lot better if each episode was shortened to about 20 minutes: "Every episode feels a bit too long, dragging its way to the accusatory conclusion," says Brian Tallerico. "Even the best ones (O’Brien, Nanjiani) could be a few minutes shorter. It’s such a goofy concept that maintaining its silly tone for over half an hour can sometimes feel like a stretch. Something that could alleviate that in future seasons might be tighter cases or maybe more than one improv comedian riffing off Arnett to break up the flow a little more (although guest stars like Huebel help with this cause at times)."
    • Murderville re-creates the vibe of an improv show in a half-hour narrative, a fun departure from game or sketch form: "The constant spontaneity is there, plus the feeling of awe when a guest gets totally into the scene. It also adopts the nature of live improv or stand-up comedy where the interlopers, both the guest and the audience, have to accept the circumstances and be open to the comedy," says Quinci LeGardye. "But in the few instances that the recruits are less credulous—where they appear to find Arnett’s requests or a suspect’s motive as foolish—the illusion that the players have so painstakingly built is broken. When everything melds together on Murderville, with the guests feeling like part of the troupe instead of a name air-dropped in, it’s a very enjoyable watch. When the celebs aren’t a great fit, it’s up to Arnett and the cast to keep everything going, and they often do. In the end, it falls under the nature of any improv show: The best moments see everyone, from the guests to the audience, dedicated to keeping this fever dream going."
    • The problem is that most of these bits don’t actually garner a lot of laughs, or at least not enough to justify the episodes’ flabby half-hour run times: "Some nonsensical filler is to be expected from a show that tries to blend improv comedy and murder mystery," says Angie Han. "Arguably, it’s even necessary: A more streamlined Murderville might be too easy to solve, and it certainly wouldn’t offer the promise of watching celebrities cheerfully make fools of themselves. Which is to say, a very tight edit would make Murderville feel hardly like Murderville at all. But Murderville as it is feels like something less than the sum of its parts. It’s telling that there’s no qualitative difference between episodes starring celebrities who are professional comedians, and those who are not; all are rendered equally only-kinda-funny by."
    • Murderville isn’t afraid to be an imperfect, silly mess, which is why it’s the perfect escape for messy time: Murderville "is a pandemic production," says Lorraine Ali. "It looks as though each scene was done in as few takes as possible, and the sets look like a production office, someone’s living room or perhaps the parking area behind the soundstage. The unremarkable locations make the players the center of attention in a series that emulates the feel of local theater and sketch comedy."

    TOPICS: Murderville, Conan O'Brien, Marshawn Lynch, Will Arnett


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