When you’re stuck in the miserable February doldrums, nothing hits as well as extremely silly television. It is the time of year for silly TV with no stakes, no mental energy required, and no point whatsoever beyond being surpassingly ridiculous, preferably in a way that makes people giggle uncontrollably. For that exact feeling, your best bet right now is the new Netflix crime-solving improv show, Murderville.
Murderville’s premise hits that perfect spot in the Venn diagram between obvious and unhinged. It’s an adaptation of a British show (Murder in Successville, which is available on Britbox). In the American version, Will Arnett plays Terry Seattle, a hard-boiled noirish detective. In every episode, his police chief–slash–ex-wife, played by Haneefah Wood, introduces Terry to a new partner hired to solve this episode’s murder case. The partners are all celebrities who play themselves. They also have no idea what’s going to happen. While Arnett and a cast of performers act out various absurd crime-solving scenes, the celebrities — Conan O’Brien, Marshawn Lynch, Annie Murphy, Kumail Nanjiani, Sharon Stone, and Ken Jeong — try to play along while also trying to solve the case. Think murder-mystery dinner party plus improv crossed with the oddly cruel games Ellen DeGeneres makes guests play on her talk show but with higher production values and a decent budget for props.
Take, for example, a scene from Murderville’s first episode, which pairs Arnett with celebrity partner Conan O’Brien. It’s the case of a murdered magician’s assistant, and Terry Seattle takes O’Brien to a restaurant where they’re going to interview the magician’s former assistant (Alison Becker), who now works as a waitress. She can only talk to them if they order food and eat it. Seattle insists on ordering for both of them and selects the “sloppy jalapeñ-joes,” promising that O’Brien has never had a “wetter sandwich.” The waitress promptly brings the sandwiches, and Terry Seattle begins generously dousing O’Brien’s in hot sauce, which Conan then has to eat in order to play along with the scene. At the same time, O’Brien’s trying to interview their suspect. “Is it true Captivating Keith replaced you with Sarah because he thought you’d gotten too old?” he tries to ask amid an enormous mouthful of sloppy jalapeñ-joe. As the waitress weeps about the magician’s cruelty, Terry Seattle adds more hot sauce to O’Brien’s sandwich. He takes another bite. “I want to die,” he grunts before looking back at the list of questions in his notebook.
Is the hot sauce real? How much does O’Brien actually know about the scenes he’s supposed to be playing? Who knows! But it’s clear that the celebrity guests are at least somewhat on the back foot. O’Brien’s mouth quirks when he hears Arnett order the food; he winces when Arnett describes those sandwiches as “like eating throw-up that’s delicious.” The surface-level game is watching the celebrity guests try to muscle their way through the ridiculous improv scenarios, but the real game is waiting to see when they break and when they manage to make Arnett break. O’Brien holds it together pretty well, but in one interrogation scene featuring a rival magician played by David Wain, Arnett is so awed by a mediocre magic trick that he ends up cowering in a corner, and it’s just such a treat to see O’Brien totally lose it for a moment.
There are a few different flavors of celebrity participant over the course of Murderville’s six episodes. Some of the guests, like O’Brien, are comedians with more experience playing stupid games like this, and it’s fun to feel Arnett push them harder into strange, uncomfortable situations. (There’s a sequence in the last episode, for instance, where he makes Ken Jeong do a series of terrible accents, and the whole thing has that giddy feeling of watching two grown-ups goading each other into an escalating trap of goofiness.) But some of the guests clearly have little to no experience playing improv games, and in that case, Murderville shifts into a different but equally entertaining mode. When the guests are practiced at this kind of thing, Murderville feels like it’s out to get them: It’s a sequence of bizarre experiences designed to make the guest crack. But when the guests have no idea what to expect, which seems to be the case for Marshawn Lynch, the celebrity instead becomes more of a viewer stand-in. It’s so fun to watch Lynch’s mouth drop in horror while Arnett gently shifts Terry Seattle into the leader of a deranged, murder-obsessed troupe of players. The game is no longer “Will the guest break?” — it’s “Will all the improv players manage to keep it together while the guest sincerely loses his mind?” It’s worth noting, also, that Murderville’s supporting cast is made up of several comedy veterans, including Phil Lamarr, Nicole Sullivan, John Ennis, Erinn Hayes, and Rob Huebel. Watching them stay stoic while everyone around them falls apart makes everything even better.
Arnett’s flexibility and playfulness are key to making Murderville work, but strong celebrity casting is what keeps its fairly predictable shtick from getting boring. Murderville manages to be as adaptable as its players. Because each celebrity approaches the game differently, each episode has its own tone, and a viewer who may not enjoy Jeong’s happy, confident play-along style might love the bizarre, glorious intensity of Sharon Stone’s performance. I enjoyed both of them — this is my favorite Ken Jeong role in quite a while! — but I’ll admit that when Stone strides into Terry Seattle’s office and has the acting control to do a cool move where she closes his door backward with her foot, my jaw dropped.
Murderville is not one of those life-changing shows that everyone’s going to be talking about for years; it is mindless to a fault. Sometimes that sort of thing is exactly what you need.