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As puzzles go, Murderville looks like a blast to solve. Each episode, a different celebrity guest is invited to partner with Detective Terry Seattle (Will Arnett) to solve a murder, the twist being that although Arnett and the rest of the cast know where the story is headed, the celebrity guest does not. Instead, the celebrity is left to improvise their way through each case, trying to figure out the killer through whatever clues they’re able to scrape together along the way.
It’s part improv exercise, part immersive experience and part scripted crime comedy — and if you’re thinking that two out of three of those sounds more entertaining to do than to watch, you’d be right. It’s not that Murderville is a bad time. Blessed with a likable cast, game guest stars and just-challenging-enough mysteries, the six episodes range from faintly amusing to reasonably diverting. It’s just never as entertaining as it seems like it should be — or as the people onscreen appear to think it is.
Airdate: Thursday, Feb. 3 (Netflix)
Cast: Will Arnett, Haneefah Wood, Lilan Bowden, Phillip Smithey
Executive Producers: Krister Johnson, Will Arnett, Marc Forman, Jonathan Stern, Peter Principato, Brian Steinberg
All episodes follow the same core beats: Police chief Rhonda (Haneefah Wood) introduces Terry to his new partner; medical examiner Amber (Lilan Bowden) shows Terry and his partner around the crime scene; Terry and his partner question three suspects; the partner singles out the probable killer; Rhonda reveals the correct solution. A never-ending string of distractions adds another layer of difficulty and, ostensibly, humor. Terry douses Conan O’Brien’s meal in hot sauce during one interview, for example, while a suspect demands Annie Murphy assemble elaborate pastries during another.
Murderville is solidly designed for playing along from home. Each case is solvable based on the hints scattered throughout the episodes, and directors Iain Morris and Brennan Shroff strike a delicate balance, making them noticeable but not glaring. I was only able to crack the case about half the time — make of my deductive powers what you will — and I looked forward to Rhonda’s detailed explanations at the end of each episode, whether to pat myself on the back for the subtle cues I’d picked up or slap my forehead at the obvious ones I’d missed.
The series also does a fine job of building out an entire universe around these cases. Arnett is hilariously committed as Terry Seattle, able to maintain his character and composure even as he describes one murder case as “a classic Humpty Dumpty” or warns Sharon Stone not to fall in love with him. (On the rare occasions when his lip does twitch, his Ron Swanson-style mustache helps cover it up.) Ongoing storylines about Terry’s divorce from Rhonda or the unsolved murder of his previous partner are woven in throughout the series, which is set in a generic “big city” that Terry describes as a place “where only the strong survive and the ruthless thrive”; in a cheeky twist, the actual visuals of the city skew closer to the clean blue skies of Parks and Recreation than the shadowy grit of Mare of Easttown.
Within that painstakingly crafted setting, the celebs seem up for just about anything. Terry goads Marshawn Lynch into mirroring the actions of a suspect in the interrogation room, and Ken Jeong into affecting a goofy Irish accent. He can convince Kumail Nanjiani to assume a bizarre walk and Murphy to don a fake mustache, or nudge O’Brien into a situation where he has to explain a bloody murder to a small child. Stone even follows Terry’s lead in tweaking the nipples of a dead body (or rather, an impressively straight-faced actor playing a dead body), simply for the laughs.
The problem is that most of these bits don’t actually garner a lot of laughs, or at least not enough to justify the episodes’ flabby half-hour run times. Some nonsensical filler is to be expected from a show that tries to blend improv comedy and murder mystery. Arguably, it’s even necessary: A more streamlined Murderville might be too easy to solve, and it certainly wouldn’t offer the promise of watching celebrities cheerfully make fools of themselves. Which is to say, a very tight edit would make Murderville feel hardly like Murderville at all.
But Murderville as it is feels like something less than the sum of its parts. It’s telling that there’s no qualitative difference between episodes starring celebrities who are professional comedians, and those who are not; all are rendered equally only-kinda-funny by Terry’s wacky instructions and the demands of these meticulously constructed plots. The celebs may not get scripts to follow, but nor are they allowed the leeway to create their own characters or steer their own cases.
And it turns out there’s only so much comedy even an experienced actor like Jeong can wring from modulating the tone and volume of his voice at Terry’s command, and there’s only so much even a charismatic personality like Lynch can do to make lines fed to him by Terry via earpiece feel like his own. Murderville‘s whodunits are broadly satisfying, concluding with neat, easily digestible answers. The larger mystery they leave behind is why they’re not more fun to watch play out.
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