Murderville

1 out of 5

Developed by: Krister Johnson

covers season 1

Strike two on this. Look: I did smile during a couple of episodes; it can be a lot of fun watching people trying to crack each other up. But that kind of leads into one of the fundamental problems with Murderville, a remake of the UK’s Murder in Successville: it never leans into the massive comedy potential of its setup, and in fact tends to hinder it left and right, cutting off even those moments which at least achieved those smiles.

That’s why the rating ends up hitting the floor: while about half of the episodes are passable in terms of successful application of the formula (there’s obviously some chance involved in having guest stars; more on that soon), all of them are overall disappointing because of the consistent missed opportunities alluded to above. Logistically, I can figure why some of that happens, but it’s a bummer nonetheless, and when you add that on top of the episodes that aren’t passable – that are rather boring – it becomes a frustrating and aggravating quality.

Here’s the idea: Will Arnett is playing detective Terry Seattle, trying to get as much mileage as possible out of his gravelly voiced, straight-faced idiot routine, and I say that without judgement – depending on the project, I’ve found Arnett to be very funny. (But also, depending on the project, very unfunny as well, since he uses this same shtick without much variance, and his scripts don’t always do much beyond assume that shtick is worth a laugh in and of itself. But I do have faith in his ability to ad lib, at the very least.) Every episode, Seattle is investigating a murder, and is paired with a new partner, played by that ep’s guest star. Across the UK version and this one, there’s no shortage of awesome names on the guest list, and people who you’d assume would either make great patsys to play off of, or great comedians to bounce jokes off of: Conan O’Brien, Kumail Nanjiani, Sharon Stone… The biggest catch, though, and the brilliant concept running this whole thing, is that the guest star is given no script. They’re tasked with solving the murder – each episode has Arnett ferrying them around to interview a trio of suspects at various locations – and put into potentially ridiculous situations baked into the format, with Arnett forcing them into uncomfortable scenarios or having them go undercover and feeding them silly lines through an earpiece. This is brilliant, in theory. In execution, it never is.

The show falls flat in most of the same ways the original did: by nature of needing to not prep their guests much, the stars never seem quite clear how seriously they’re supposed to take things, leading to the Arnett’s partner-of-the-episode either trying too diligently to pay attention (Annie Murphy) or forgetting to project a sense of fun into the process (O’Brien seems kind of miffed to be there, even if that wasn’t the case…). I can’t fault either of these things, because Arnett doesn’t quite have the original’s Tom Davis’ sense of improv in terms of trying to push his guests toward laughter; he changes his tactics a bit depending on the guest, but it never really works until he has someone willing to play off of him, like Nanjiani – which surprisingly makes his the best episode. But even in that case, the odd “strictness” of the format haunts things: because the interviewees are required to spit out their clues, they often interrupt the potential flow of the ad libbing (Arnett does this too), and clearly can’t go too far off script with their own ad libs, despite bringing in plenty of talented actors who likely could do so. In a 30-minute series aired on TV, you can boil this down to edits, but Netflix has taken advantage of varying runtimes before, and should’ve allowed things to breathe a bit more so the humor could build. …Unless we’re seeing the best-possible version of things, with even less funny moments edited out.

And while it shouldn’t be a gripe, I’ll make it: the cases suck. If I were a guest, I’d be pissed at the amount of conjecture they’re acknowledging as “facts” to solve a case. I’m not asking for ironclad logic, necessarily, but, as an isolated example: in the O’Brien episode, Conan is coached to blockade himself in a room while some angry protestors pound on the door. This is supposed to translate to a “clue” that the lead protestor can’t pick locks. Some of the clues are better than others, but there’s a lot of “Because X, then Z!” type conclusions that are provided, that slightly sharper writing could’ve cleaned up.

I liked that there are some connecting jokes between episodes (I don’t think the UK one did that), as well as ditching the green-screen opening of the original; Murderville feels a bit more “natural” in its structure than Successville, but that also just means the disappointment with it not meeting even a low bar of consistent comedy is that much larger. There are slight differences between the two besides, with an American-y focus on some light gross-out antics, like forcefeeding Conan sloppy joes, and Arnett is “softer” on his guests than Davis was, so maybe you like that tone more or less. But otherwise, it’s a conceptual mirror, and certainly doesn’t do anything that fixes the original’s most major flaws, making another whiff on this promising idea. Certainly someone can figure out how to make this work.