Murderville has a lovely concept. Will Arnett (Arrested Development, Rumble) plays an ostensibly hard boiled, but actually quite goofy, detective who each episode is given a new partner to investigate a crime. The gimmick is that each new partner is played by an actor who has no script and is forced to improv and react to the shenanigans around them. Each episode winds through police procedural clichés: police station interrogations, witness statements, morgues, and crime scene investigations. The guest is then tasked with trying to solve the murder based on the scenes they have perform. Each episode resolves with all the suspects in a room and the guest forced to identify the murderer to the hilarious reactions of the police chief (a very funny Haneefah Wood, Truth Be Told).
One of my favorite things about the show is the way Arnett and his team try to accentuate the skills and hide the weaknesses of the guests. One ribald scene in Conan O’Brien’s episode sees the comic host “required” to eat hot sauce drenched sloppy joes in order to continue asking a suspect questions. If he’s not eating, the witness, a diner waitress, won’t speak. It’s incredibly goofy, but watching Conan try to stay in character and solve the murder while beginning to change colors from the hot sauce is an absolute joy.
Marshawn Lynch, a future NFL Hall of Famer, is far from a trained actor, but Arnett gamely feeds him gags to garner a reaction. Lynch brings a funny, game energy. It speaks to a show that’s self-aware about how to accentuate its guests. Kumail Nanjiani (Eternals) and Ken Jeong (The Hangover) are a nice contrast in opposites. As “yes and” willing Jeong is to play along with Arnett, Nanjiani takes a more confrontational tactic. Nanjiani and Arnett have the sort of chemistry that allows them to buck conventional improv tropes and play scenes with more stops. Annie Murphy (Schitt’s Creek) is a delight as always, but the surprise standout is Sharon Stone (Casino, Basic Instinct)). I had not realized that Stone had such brilliant comedic timing and improvisational skill. I probably should’ve realized from her amazing, and entirely fictional, spot in Scorsese’s quasi-documentary Rolling Thunder Revue: A Bob Dylan Story. She manages to elevate the comedy by out hardboiling Arnett’s hardboiled detective. She delivers incredible off-the-cuff zingers (on a piece of evidence, “this is stickier than my last divorce!”) that work wonderfully for the gimmick. I would love to see a late career reinvention in comedy for Stone.
I’ll say that I think Murderville has a pretty limited audience. As funny as many moments of the show are, a viewer need a real openness to the appeal of improv comedy for this to work. As in most improv, the hilarious highs can be undercut by awkward lows often in the same scene. As Netflix tries to effectively replace cable, this is a good enough approximation of Comedy Central content like Drunk History and a perfectly pleasant way to spend a half hour.
Murderville is on Netflix worldwide today, February 3, 2022.