Will Arnett and celebrity co-stars play a delightfully silly game of murder mystery meets improv comedy
Murderville has a terrible premise. It’s a parody of police procedurals, but also involves improv comedy, performed mostly by actors not known for their improvisational skills. It sounds like forced laughs of the most uncomfortable kind, where the jokes are sparse and the flop sweat is flowing. It shouldn’t work at all. And yet, somehow, it not only works, it’s a genuine delight, and a respite from a relentlessly bleak season.
Will Arnett, speaking in his BoJack Horseman voice, is Terry Seattle, a mostly incompetent homicide detective. Estranged from his wife Rhonda (Haneefah Wood), who also happens to be his commanding officer, Terry lives at his office, half of which is occupied by the belongings of his murdered partner, right down to the decomposing remains of both a breakfast burrito, and a pet rabbit. While trying to get over the end of his marriage, he’s also determined to find out who killed his partner, played by an actor I won’t reveal, lest it spoil a terrific sight gag.
That’s the “police procedural” part. The “improv” part comes by way of the new partners Terry is assigned in each episode, including Conan O’Brien, Marshawn Lynch, Kumail Nanjiani, Annie Murphy, Sharon Stone and Ken Jeong. While everything involving Terry’s interactions with Chief Rhonda and his co-workers is mostly scripted, his partners are thrown into the middle of things blind, forced to go along with whatever Terry tells them, whether it’s performing open heart surgery without any medical training, or going undercover as a poker dealer named Octavius Shitwagon. All this is in service of solving murders with some Encyclopedia Brown-level powers of observation and deduction.
Again, this all sounds pretty silly, right? Well, it is. It’s also hilarious.
True, there are a few moments where things seem to be floundering (Annie Murphy, bless her, she looks a little lost much of the time in her episode). But just on the strength of Conan O’Brien being forced to eat something called a “Sloppy Jalapen-joe,” which Arnett keeps liberally dousing with hot sauce, Murderville is an unexpected gem. Then you have Kumail Nanjiani being taught how to properly gasp when told there’s been a murder (“Like an asthmatic,” Wood tells him), or Arnett and Marshawn Lynch helping to update a doll called Tommy Tuxedo (“He’s on some new age space pimping and shit”). When Arnett and his partners find a groove and bounce off of each other like a proper improv team, it’s one of the funniest things to come to Netflix in a long time.
Even when that groove doesn’t quite happen, and the partners break character to laugh (as is pretty much entirely the case with Ken Jeong), it’s still enjoyable. Interestingly, the partner who’s able to play things the straightest, and goes with the flow of everything without batting an eyelash is Sharon Stone, who puts on an atrocious German accent like she’s been doing comedy her whole life. Shoring things up as the various suspects under investigation are some familiar faces in the comedy world, including David Wain, Phil LaMarr, and Nicole Sullivan. If nothing else, Murderville is a sketch comedy fan’s dream, smart without being dry, and silly without being insufferable. It doesn’t always stick the landing, but it never stops having fun trying to get to the runway.
Also, how can you not love a show that has a recurring gag about Broadway legend Tommy Tune?
Murderville is now available on Netflix.