Murderville: Season 1 — A half-baked lesson in improv
Send in the trainees
Hard-boiled detective Terry Seattle (Will Arnett) is in need of a new partner. A lot of new partners. In this half scripted, half unscripted parody, based on the 2015 British comedy series Murder in Successville, celebrity guests are led blindly on wild homicide investigations and must improvise their way through interviews, stakeouts, and undercover ops in order to bring killers to justice. Every episode brings with it a new familiar face, with Conan O'Brien, Kumail Nanjiani, and Ken Jeong being a few of the detectives-in-training who Terry Seattle must guide. Even with his help, however, it is up to the celebrity guest alone to collect clues and solve the case. And while the concept may be brilliant and full of potential, the show puts too much responsibility on these ever-changing celebrity stars, resulting in an inconsistent comedy series where the main draw is also the main issue.
Murder mysteries are a difficult genre to innovate, so when I first caught wind of what Murderville was attempting to do for Netflix, I was incredibly intrigued. A detective show where everyone has a script except for the celebrity guest? Hell yeah, I'm in. The catch with this premise, however, is that the comedy will only be as strong as the guest's ability to improvise, so if they don't have the rhythm or comedic timing down, the whole episode is going to flop. The pilot episode with Conan O'Brien is a great example of proper casting. Having loads of improv experience, Conan reacts to every scenario like a professional, enhancing his scenes with his own bit of humor and top-notch timing. The same can be said for Sharon Stone, who, even without being known as a comedic actress, excels in her episode purely based on the fact that she is game for anything and quick to react.
But not all the guests nail the part, and that's where the show's inconsistencies begin to drag it down. Kumail Nanjiani is by far the most reserved of all the celebrity guests, often refusing to answer or do things and instead breaking the fourth wall with copious amounts of laughter and awkward smiles. You can tell he's uncomfortable, and not in a funny way either — it looks like he just wants to get off set and go home for most of the episode. Ken Jeong's romp as a detective is better, but he similarly shies away from fully embracing the material and instead laughs his way through the embarrassment rather than spin it to work for him.
Given that the show is mostly unscripted, many of these issues are organic and can't be helped all that much. However, because Arnett has a script and knows what's coming, he should be able to sense a guest's discomfort and accurately gauge whether or not the current bit is working, and if it's not, dial back the insanity and try something new. By ignoring the obvious discomfort and actually dialing in on it more, otherwise funny scenes are made cringeworthy. Yes, celebrity awkwardness and anxiety is funny to a degree, but in this case it feels inadvertent, and that, at least to me, just doesn't hold much humor.
- Final Thoughts -
Murderville is a wildly original show that does its best to mesh scripted tv with unscripted. It isn't perfect by any means, relying too heavily on its guest stars, but when the balance works it really works, and can sometimes be truly hilarious. For a show as easily digestible as this, it's well worth your time.
(Murderville image courtesy of Netflix)