You could be forgiven for blearily scrolling past Murderville on Netflix and dismissing it as another generic cop effort, but Will Arnett’s new improvisational comedy vehicle reveals a surprising amount in its title. For a start, it’s a show that, under a thick coating of comedic irony, doesn’t take itself in any way seriously, and, perhaps less surprisingly, it involves a not insubstantial amount of murder.
Netflix’s latest follows Arnett’s fake-moustache-sporting sleuth Terry Seattle as he is joined each week by a brand-new celebrity sidekick hoping to solve an improbably absurd killing in the big city. Part scripted and part improvised, a show like Murderville spends most of its time, both to its benefit and detriment, with its tongue planted firmly in its cheek.
The show is not, however, an original concept. Murderville is an American remake of BBC3’s improv sitcom Murder in Successville, although one feels as though the original’s title is more apt for the transatlantic reboot: whereas Murder in Successville recruited the comedic talents of Vicky Pattison, Mark Wright and Lorraine Kelly, Murderville boasts a more substantial roster of heavyweights including Ken Jeong, Kamil Nanjiani, and even Conan O’Brien.
Murder in Successville, of course, took its also somewhat ironic name from a heavy reliance on its audience’s knowledge of the British B-list, predicated on utilising a cast of professional impressionists (and quite a few jobbing comedians) to perform send-ups of celebrity suspects: Gary Barlow, Boris Johnson, Cara Delevingne etc. It is here that Murderville takes its primary departure from the original, ditching self-consciously patchy celebrity impersonators for a proper Hollywood cast of suspects, detectives, and police staff.
This is also where Murderville makes potentially its most glaring error. Murder in Successville wasn’t perfect by any means, a ramshackle affair that relied heavily on the charisma of its lead detective, Tom Davies’ bungling DCI Sleet, to forge a path through its strange and chaotic myriad of celebrity impressionists and peculiar setups. The BBC’s effort was untidy, ridiculous and often felt like being on the set of an Iceland ad after someone had slipped some LSD into the party rings, but it traded on this quality to surprising effect. The show’s ramshackle nature was in keeping with its format as an improvisational vehicle, with its surreal temperament and air of actual ‘danger’ when things went awry lending it genuine charm.
It is this quality that Murderville, perhaps unsurprisingly, fails to replicate. Despite Arnett’s consistently solid comedic chops, Murderville is a sleeker, smoother and far more clinical affair, even though one senses it’s always trying not to be. The show’s higher production values, better guest stars, more elaborate locations and set-ups, as well as its ditching of impersonators, strip it of the original’s anarchic edge. With Murder in Successville, there were often times where things seemed to genuinely be coming off the rails, usually to the audience’s benefit. Murderville feels safe and secure by comparison, as though the very idea of actual improvisation in an improv show is a source of terror rather than one of mischief and delight.
Murderville’s removal of many of the original’s surreal trappings does, however, allow for a greater focus on its guest stars. By removing the distracting and absurdist kinks, there’s a chance for the show’s ‘trainees’ to take more of the limelight, especially when the American remake’s episodes run for on average around ten minutes more than those of its British counterpart.
This, of course, feeds into the greatest strength, or potential weakness, of any semi-scripted outing of this type: its guests. Any show recruiting outside help will inherently rise and fall on an episodic basis depending on the standard of talent recruited, and Murderville is no different. When things click and there’s a sense that this week’s stand-in really ‘gets it’, things can feel effortless and charming. If they don’t, however, it can feel heavy, turgid and downright uncomfortable.
Each guest rides a fine line in their performance: give too much and the sense that they’re fish-out-of-water trainees thrust into an unfamiliar situation is lost. Give too little, and proceedings can be as excruciating as watching your five-year-old forget their lines in the Christmas Nativity play. Kumail Nanjiani, a natural comic performer, rides the line adeptly, bouncing between immersed sincerity, naïve enthusiasm and bemused participation with ease, always part of proceedings while never completely comfortable with them.
Former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch, meanwhile, seems to inhabit the role with excessive bravado, slotting into the setup with such confidence that one sense he’s either been prepped beforehand or else armed himself with ready-to-go lines before the cameras roll. Once again, it’s this excessive smoothness that can rob Murderville of its killer edge.
That isn’t to say the show lacks funny moments. One of the benefits of sleek production is that there has clearly been an effort made when it comes to more scripted, stable setups. A gag involving a suspect and wannabee-entrepreneur’s meditation aid that berates the user into transcendence, with lines such as “shut up, brain, shut up! You’re useless. It’s no wonder everyone hates you”, is especially enjoyable.
But it’s the moments of genuine spontaneity that really elevate Murderville to the realm of laugh-out-loud – like when Arnett goads Nanjiani into performing a strange, mannered strut-walk, complete with squawking vocal accompaniments, to convince a suspect that he is ‘stupid cop’. As both protagonists attempt to hide their genuine laughter, we glimpse how good the show could’ve been if only we had been treated to a few moments with the shackles off.
Murderville may end up as great study in how transatlantic audiences view television differently. Those who enjoyed the Murder in Successville’s rambling, homemade charms may feel disillusioned by a far more professional, somewhat sanitised US reimagining. Those seeking a smoother, sleeker affair may feel that Murderville strikes an effective balance between improvisational mad-cappery and clinical, efficient American production, even if it loses some of its edge in the process.
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Murderville rises and falls on the quality of its guest stars, but fans of the original might find this American reboot plays things too safe to really make the best of its premise.
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