UK TV review: Murderville
Sophie Davies | On 20, Feb 2022
In each episode of Netflix’s Murderville, a blundering detective (played by Will Arnett) is joined by a different celebrity guest to help him solve a murder. The guest has no script and no idea what they’ve got themselves into. The two mismatched partners check out the crime scene, meet three suspects (all played by improv comedians) and it’s ultimately up to the guest to choose which suspect they think is the murderer.
If this unusual premise sounds familiar to you, that’s because Murderville is an American remake of BBC Three’s Murder in Successville. The British creators, Tom Davis and James De Frond, are on board as executive producers, and the remake retains the format of the original – save for the fact that in Murder in Successville, the suspects were improv comedians playing twisted versions of celebrities (eg. gangster brothers Jimmy and Alan Carr, corrupt politician Len Goodman, etc), which made its high-concept setup even more elaborate and challenging to describe.
As is usually expected with US remakes of British shows, Murderville is a more slick production than its eccentric UK counterpart. If you’re a fan of the original, this can take some getting used to – particularly since the first guest, Conan O’Brien, is significantly more at ease than any of the original show’s guests were. Murder in Successville’s guest detectives were typically a mix of British TV/radio personalities and pop stars (think Lorraine Kelly, Deborah Meaden, Emma Bunton and Martin Kemp), while Murderville’s are predominantly TV/film stars with backgrounds in comedy or acting.
In the first episode, it feels like there’s a danger of Conan O’Brien, as a seasoned comedy writer and performer, being too comfortable for the format to work as it should. He barely flinches when he’s asked to explain a horrific murder to a child, and at one point he comes up with a story so funny that it causes a member of the supporting cast to break character. However, although O’Brien rarely seems overwhelmed by what’s going on around him, comedy still comes from other places since Arnett tries to push him as far as possible – on one occasion making him eat a sloppy, spicy sandwich while questioning a suspect – and the two make each other laugh multiple times throughout the episode. From the outset, this gives Murderville a very different vibe from Murder In Successville, but it’s entertaining nonetheless.
Episodes 2 and 3 are arguably the highlights of the first season, since both guest detectives (former American football player Marshawn Lynch and actor Kumail Nanjiani) are funny while also being noticeably outside of their comfort zones. Lynch throws himself into every aspect of the experience, whether he’s pitching ideas for the redesign of a doll (“He’s gotta dab!”) or pretending to be a suspect’s mirror image by mimicking his movements. Meanwhile, Nanjiani is endearingly awkward and builds up a playfully antagonistic dynamic with Arnett, at one point even challenging him to copy his accent.
The second half of the season is more of a mixed bag, although none of the guests are outright duds. Annie Murphy is timid and a little tense to begin with, but comes out of her shell when she goes undercover as a shady, moustachioed pancake mogul. Sharon Stone does a fair amount of blocking in the improv, but manages to maintain an impressive level of cool no matter what’s thrown at her. In the finale, Ken Jeong is having so much fun that he laughs unashamedly throughout and it’s difficult not to find it infectious.
At the centre of the chaos, Will Arnett crucially proves to be an effective substitute for Murder in Successville’s Tom Davis. As homicide detective Terry Seattle, he strikes just the right balance of arrogance and pitifulness. Differing from the original show, the police chief at Detective Seattle’s station also happens to be his ex-wife. This creates an opportunity for even more comic awkwardness with the guests, who are witness to arguments about the couple’s divorce and sometimes even asked to take sides. There’s also some backstory with Seattle having a partner who was murdered years ago and the season finale involves wrapping up this unsolved case in a satisfying way.
American remakes of British TV shows are historically hit-and-miss, but Murderville does something different with the premise of its UK counterpart and manages to come up with results that are fun on a similar level. It does feel more safe and less anarchic than the original – Murder in Successville gave one of its episodes a Scandi noir theme, while another took place in Ye Olde Successville, and it’s difficult to imagine the remake doing anything like this – so whether you prefer one or the other will likely come down to your comedic sensibilities.