Improvisational comedy can be truly hysterical or a complete trainwreck, depending on the skill of those involved. That’s why you have to applaud what was a risky endeavor for Krister Johnson: developing the improv and scripted comedy hybrid Murderville for Netflix. The show, follows Detective Terry Seattle (Will Arnett, BoJack Horseman) as he teams up with a different celebrity partner each week to try and successfully solve a murder. While it has some of the most experienced improv comedians in the business involved, and a general outline for how each episode should go, the ultimate success or failure of the show largely hinges on the celebrity partner’s ability to play along, stay in character, and contribute in a hilarious way. In six episodes, Murderville succeeds at being absolutely brilliant about half of the time, which coincidently matches the guest’s success rate at correctly identifying the killer, but those two things don’t always coincide.
The show begins each episode with Detective Seattle (no, he’s never been), interacting with Chief Rhonda Jenkins-Seattle (Haneefah Wood, Schooled), who awkwardly also happens to be his estranged wife. It’s a messy work environment, and it extends to poor Seattle’s whole life ever since his former partner Lori (Jennifer Aniston, Friends) was murdered 15 years ago. Scripted but funny exposition connects running jokes and the ongoing storyline of who was behind the now cold case death of Lori, and then the Chief introduces Seattle’s new partner, to his continuous dismay. It’s hard to think of anyone being a better fit for this than Arnett. He fits the down-on-his-luck detective role perfectly, with his deep raspy voice and innocent demeanor, not to mention his unbelievable talent in improv and ability to keep it together when most would break character repeatedly.
Murder mystery improv isn’t uncommon, but developing it into a streaming series is a fresh concept that allows for actors to create some comedy gold while still maintaining the safety net of effective editing. It’s a bit like watching an episode of SNL, but the guest star isn’t given a script to follow, instead having to rely on prompts from Arnett and other actors who work to steer the conversation and setups in a way that will provide clues along the way. The celebrity partners that appear are Conan O’Brien, Marshawn Lynch, Kumail Nanjiani, Annie Murphy, Sharon Stone, and Ken Jeong, in that order. A guest like Jeong can’t help but laugh his way through things, while Stone remains impressively deadpan throughout. Each reaction has its merits, and it keeps the episodes fresh despite maintaining the same basic structure.
At its best, it’s one of the most entertaining new shows of the year – for example, watching Kumail Nanjiani fully commit to maintaining a “stupid face and walk” before Arnett instructs him to add a “signature sound” as well, a squawk that causes a rare break from Arnett, covering his mouth to hide his laughter. It’s a sequence that can be played on repeat and still get you every time, as is the complete commitment Annie Murphy has going undercover in her episode. At its worst, it’s a televised murder mystery theater where you can pay attention to a mix of obvious and subtle clues to decide for yourself who to pin the murder on. Once you understand the concept, you should be able to connect the dots, as long as you’re not laughing too hard to focus, which does happen.
Outside of Nanjiani’s (who keeps perfect comedic timing even when he reacts to an absurd prompt), standout episodes featured O’Brien, who you would expect it from given his brand of comedy, and Lynch, who’s likely to surprise you if you’re only familiar with his commercials and short press conferences. He clearly came with some choices early on that forced Arnett to stay on his toes, and he has a fun energy to him that is uniquely his own. His episode is further advanced by Rob Huebel lending his talents to portray triplet suspects, a development that, according to Seattle, makes things, “twice as interesting.” The show is full of other ridiculous quips like, “I only murdered her because I wanted her dead,” and uses everything from elaborate props to earpieces, from classic gags like pretending to be someone’s reflection to having a little girl (played by the ridiculously talented Brandilyn Cheah) question Conan as to when the magician is going to “finish the trick” and put the sawed-in-half murder victim back together.
Arnett is brilliant throughout, always serving as the anchor for a show that could lose traction at any moment, as are the other actors who help maintain the difficult tonal balance of absurd and sincere. There are no bad episodes, as each guest brings their own nuance to these ridiculous set pieces and the premises they are thrust into with a wink, and so they all have their great moments. Comedy is subjective, so everyone may have their own favorites, but the added element of trying to choose correctly along with the guest really sets this series apart. If you enjoy improv and appreciate the genius and wit it takes to create in the moment, or if you simply like any of the people involved, then punch yourself a one-way ticket to Murderville.