'Murderville' Can't Quite Solve the Mystery of Great Improv

Created by Krister Johnson

Starring Will Arnett, Conan O'Brien, Annie Murphy, Kumail Nanjiani, Ken Jeong, Marshawn Lynch, Sharon Stone

Photo: Darren Michael

BY Rachel HoPublished Feb 4, 2022

For all the heavy prestige TV dramas audiences have been treated to in recent years, sometimes mindless entertainment with famous celebs is what we need, especially in the grey months of winter. Adapted from a British improvisational sitcom, Murderville is distinctly Hollywood and American, for better and for worse. 

Toronto's own Will Arnett plays Detective Terry Seattle, a crime-solver straight out of a '70s TV show — crumpled shirt, moustache and all. His colleagues include Chief Rhonda Jenkins-Seattle (Haneefah Wood), who is also Seattle's estranged wife; young Detective Darren "Daz" Phillips (Phillip Smithey), and medical specialist Amber Kang (Lilan Bowden). In each episode, Seattle is paired with a detective-in-training and the two — with the assistance of Phillips and Kang — attempt to solve a murder.

A new celebrity guest is brought in to fill the detective-in-training role every episode and is not given a script. The show's core group are privy to the plot of the episode, and Arnett in particular is tasked with guiding the episode, prompting the guest star into various scenarios. Some traditional improv games are used, such as mirroring another actor, adopting an accent, and the use of a hidden ear-piece forcing the guest to say whatever lines Arnett feeds them.

With the exception of NFL veteran Marshawn Lynch, all of the celebrity guest stars are well-known actors. This is probably the biggest change to the British version, which used British celebrities who weren't actors. Much of the comedy built into the British version is the uneasiness of the guests, which is of course lost when using actual actors. However, when the actors themselves are seasoned improv professionals, like Conan O'Brien (who unsurprisingly smashes his episode), Murderville moves beyond a SNL sketch and is a well-oiled machine. 

A great carry-over from the British format is the game element, as the guest star guesses who they believe the murderer to be based on all the clues. At the end of the episode, Chief Jenkins-Seattle reveals who the murderer is and gives an explanation, pointing out all the key evidence. It's a fun play-along for audiences, and when the guest is actually invested in solving the mystery (like Ottawa's finest, Annie Murphy, clearly is), it makes for an engaging watch.

There are times when Murderville becomes very silly (fart sounds playing as Ken Jeong is meant to be hiding, Sharon Stone tweaking a corpse's nipples), and depending on your sense of humour, this may tickle your fancy. The most consistently used device is the hidden ear-piece, which is used in every episode. And while this draws laughs when used on strangers in talk shows à la The Ellen DeGeneres Show, when Arnett is feeding lines to an actor who is saying them to another actor, the gag is less effective.

Oddly, the improv side of Murderville feels lost at times — perhaps because the actors are well-trained and "yes and"-ing with the best of them — and in those instances, the show can feel like an elongated SNL sketch. But overall, the show is fun, and Arnett does a good job moving the episodes forward with plenty of humorous moments. Murderville is an entertaining show, but it's unlikely to receive the same acclaim its British counterpart did.

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