Murderville is like an episode-length version of that pregnant pause you get right before someone breaks in a Saturday Night Live sketch. You know it’s coming. So do they. They’re still trying to keep it professional, but we all know they’re going to fail. There is joy in that failure. I love this show for the same reason we all love an unexpected SNL break.
Will Arnett is perfectly cast as the lead in this Netflix improv comedy-with-a-twist. He plays Terry Seattle, a bumbling sadsack of a homicide detective, who gets saddled each episode with a new murder mystery and a new celebrity partner to solve it. But there’s one, small wrinkle: His partner has no script. So, they are pushed into leading every interrogation while improv antics are challenging their every performance choice.
The comedic energy swings wildly across the show’s six episodes, as each new partner brings their particular sensibilities to the concept. In Conan O’Brien’s episode, the veteran late-night host’s penchant for the absurd is on full display as he explains death to a small child and attempts an interrogation while eating food that’s drowning in hot sauce.
Arnett is fucking with a famous person in the name of improv comedy.
The vibe shifts abruptly in the next episode when NFL superstar Marshawn Lynch steps in. The infamously quirky and playful athlete doesn’t just go toe-to-toe with Arnett, who actively works to keep every new partner off balance. Lynch shifts that balance in every scene, taking the improv ethos of “yes, and” in unexpected directions. For instance, upon meeting Terry, Lynch asks to be called “Detective Bagabitch.” Arnett visibly stalls as he works out how to get the scene back on his track.
The four subsequent episodes pair Arnett with Kumail Nanjiani, Annie Murphy, Sharon Stone, and Ken Jeong. While the comedic rhythms shift from story to story, they’re all fundamentally rooted in the simple idea that Arnett is fucking with a famous person in the name of improv comedy. The extent to which each guest returns the favor — or not! — becomes the pace-setter for every story. It’s not about forcing Conan to kill his digestive tract with a gallon of hot sauce; it’s about probing for his limits and finding the comedy in shoving him just over the edge.
As wild and unexpected as Murderville gets, there is a framework for its whodunit approach. The opening scene always carries forward an ongoing thread about Terry’s struggles with his police chief, Rhonda Jenkins-Seattle (Haneefah Wood), who is also his soon-to-be ex-wife. A meet-and-greet with the new partner in his office leads the murder scene, where Coroner Amber Kang (Lilan Bowden) lays out what happened and runs through clues. Three suspects will be interviewed, then comes a final sequence, wherein Terry’s partner must pick which one is the killer. Once a choice is made, Chief Jenkins-Seattle swoops to confirm or reject their detective work, breaking down the clues peppered throughout the episode.
Many of these scenes are built to create comedically awkward situations for the celeb partner to navigate. Sometimes it’s putting on an earpiece and parroting Arnett’s words, or performing a comical physical action, like pretending to be someone’s reflection in a mirror. Repulsive food or gross-out antics are involved from time to time. Things get messy.
Beyond the comedy, each episode introduces a mystery that can be solved. Carefully woven into the fabric of a scene, the clues are all out there, waiting to be found. Figuring out a Murderville mystery ahead of time is possible, but the show doesn’t make it too easy.
That tension of how the performer responds to any given heightened situation is what makes Murderville so much fun. Conan proves himself to be particularly adept at keeping cool in high-pressure situations. When he gets down on one knee and affably explains in graphic detail how a saw can cut through someone’s body, he’s taking control of that moment and consciously steering the comedy. When Jeong takes his turn in the finale, the Community star seems more content to simply watch the ridiculousness unfold around him and then react.
Of course, none of this works without Arnett. He captains every half-hour mystery as a laugh factory himself. He’s dropping improv cues and doing what he can to heighten every moment. But he’s also minding the pace of things and taking steps to move a moment along when it reaches its natural end or extend what needs extending in the name of more laughs.
He plays Terry like a sadder and more world-weary version of his Arrested Development fave, Gob Bluth: Maybe not quite as self-absorbed and openly insecure about his station in life as that classic TV role, but with the same brash, unearned confidence and not-as-smart-as-he-thinks-he-is patter. It’s a perfect fit for the character Arnett brings to life in Terry Seattle, and one that makes it easy for him to disappear into the background of a scene when a guest’s improvisations merit the spotlight.
There are plenty of thoroughly captivating whodunits out there in the world today. Murderville looks at each-and-every one and scoffs. It’s not so much a parody as it is a work of cleverly experimental comedy that toys with our mystery-solving expectations by layering in the spontaneity of improv. With Arnett’s steady hand guiding every episode and the energy shifts each guest brings, Murderville carefully splits its time between challenging viewers to follow the clues and leaving them breathless with anticipation and laughter as they watch to see which talented performer crumbles next.