Series that rely heavily on celebrity guests can be risky — and even more so when the show leans on their improvisational talents. Fortunately, with the right host, a clever premise, and just the right amount of structure to keep things moving along, all of those risky elements can create something wonderful, which is the case with Netflix’s latest original series, Murderville.
Based on the BBC series Murder in Successville, Murderville casts Will Arnett as homicide detective Terry Seattle, who must solve a new (and often ridiculous) murder in each episode with the help of a celebrity guest. The catch? The celebrity guests don’t get a script, and must accompany Arnett’s character from one scene to the next, ad-libbing as they interview the three chief suspects. The final scene has the episode’s guest announce which of the suspects they believe is the murderer, with their verdict either confirmed or disproven by Terry’s boss (Haneefah Wood) in the end.
The first season of Murderville pairs Arnett’s not-quite-hardboiled detective with an eclectic mix of partners, including talk show host Conan O’Brien, actors Kumail Nanjiani (Eternals) and Ken Jeong (Community), actresses Annie Murphy (Schitt’s Creek) and Sharon Stone (Basic Instinct), and former NFL player Marshawn Lynch. Given the wide range of on-screen experience and improvisational skills among the show’s guests, the path each episode takes in getting to that final “whodunit?” moment varies, allowing for some truly entertaining — and yes, unscripted — moments.
Over the course of the series’ first six episodes, Murderville manages to be part celebrity improv session, part “escape room”-esque adventure for Arnett and his partners, shifting its weight between the more scripted, structured narrative of its central mystery and its guests’ freeform investigation of the murder. Their investigation inevitably requires them to engage in some sort of ridiculous challenge that tests their ability to not only ad-lib, but to avoid breaking character as Arnett’s bumbling detective pushes them into one weird predicament after another.
In one of the series’ recurring gags, the guests are asked to wear an earpiece and go “undercover,” repeating everything Terry tells them and following his directions in order to gather necessary evidence. Other gags have the guests playing “human mirror” to an unwitting suspect or attempting to pass themselves off as doctors, criminals, or various other professionals while reacting on the fly to Terry’s prompts.
Of course, if the challenges were real, they’d all fail (this isn’t Whose Line Is It Anyway?, after all) — but watching how spectacularly they all fail is a big part of the show’s humor.
Staying on the tracks
Although every episode of Murderville unfolds within some narrative guardrails and follows a relatively simple, similar structure, Arnett’s charisma and his improvisational abilities — as well as those of the actors playing each episode’s suspects — never fail to keep things interesting, even when a celebrity guest seems disinclined to take the bait or fully buy into a particular activity. When a guest focuses too intently on the investigation and the laughs start to dwindle, for example, Arnett turns up the distraction and keeps the humor flowing. On the flip side, when a celebrity guest gets too caught up in a joke and threatens to derail a scene, Arnett (or one of the show’s supporting cast members) offers a subtle nudge in the right direction, keeping the basic plot of the show moving forward.
Thanks to the variety of the show’s guests and the type of investigations they engage in, each episode of Murderville serves up a stand-alone story (and set of jokes), but the series also weaves in some recurring elements that give it a sense of continuity (and reward) for binge-watchers, too.
Terry’s efforts to solve the murder of his partner — portrayed via photo, without any on-screen appearance, by Jennifer Aniston — is a plot point revisited in each episode, for example, and each investigation also seems to find some way to work in a mention of legendary entertainer Tommy Tune in one way or another.
So crazy it works
With its silly premise and reliance on celebrity guests willing to make fools of themselves, Murderville really shouldn’t feel as sustainable as it does. But the way the series coaxes each guest out of their comfort zone and puts its faith in Arnett’s tireless charisma really makes it feel like the series could be the start of something special that doesn’t wear out its welcome too quickly. Six-episode seasons feel like just the right size for the show, and make it digestible in a both a single binge-watching session or over the course of a week or two, whatever your preference dictates.
Fun, funny, and full of surprises for both its audience and celebrity guests, Murderville goes all-in on its premise and execution, and that gamble pays off with a show that lives up to its hilarious potential.
All six episodes of Murderville premiere February 3 on Netflix.
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