Murderville review – almost every scene is torturous cringe | Television & radio

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Murder in Successville, which ran on BBC Three from 2015-17, was one of the more innovative British comedies of the past decade. A hybrid of sitcom, reality show, spoof and grand-scale prank, it starred King Gary’s Tom Davis as DI Sleet, a homicide detective who was helped by a different celebrity sidekick each week. The twist: the celebrity was not given the script, forcing them to improvise, under Davis’s deliberately off-putting tutelage, through a torrent of ridiculous interactions with suspects, culminating in them being asked to identify the killer.

It was a startling flash of bottled chaos that deserves to be cherished. It doesn’t deserve the new US remake, Murderville (Netflix), which hacks off the concept’s eccentric rough edges, then makes a mess of the less interesting show that’s left.

As the sleeker title implies, Murderville streamlines the idea, and it makes one big change that does have a logic to it. The original was set in a town populated by celebrities, played by impressionists. “Gordon Ramsay” was Sleet’s boss, while “Simon Cowell” was the town mayor and so on, which added another layer of absurdity but complicated the format. Lose that, as Murderville does by having ordinary actors playing ordinary characters, and you can focus on each guest’s encounter with the star of the show – Will Arnett, in a crumpled suit and a moustache that refuses to stay stuck on, as unstable detective Terry Seattle.

Another less welcome tweak becomes apparent, however, when you look at the guests. The British show favoured structured-reality stars, radio and TV presenters, and girl/boyband singers. Chucking these non actors into an entirely unfamiliar, immersive situation provoked unpredictable reactions. Mark Wright from The Only Way Is Essex was genuinely terrified, while Deborah Meaden from Dragons’ Den maintained her brusque but fair persona and played it straight. Richard Osman from Pointless had to cope with not being the funniest person in the room. Vicky Pattison from Geordie Shore was the funniest person in the room.

Murderville flings all that in the bin. Perhaps, the US doesn’t quite have the same depth and diversity as celebrity Britain, so it can’t cast the sort of self-ironising, famous-yet-normal types who made Murder in Successville such a pleasure. With the exception of former NFL running back Marshawn Lynch, the guests are all seasoned actors or comedians (and even Lynch has acted a bit, in Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Westworld). They’re not nearly uncomfortable enough. They’re just pros doing improv.

Still, I hoped they’d get a rhythm going with Arnett – replacing the disturbing, hilarious pseudo-bullying of the original with the miraculous plate-spinning feat that is semi-scripted comedy when it clicks. Sadly not. Mediocre comedy is depressing to watch, but mediocre improvisation is excruciating, and almost every Murderville scene is torturous cringe. Arnett just doesn’t have the skills: he is unable to drive the action with any authority, corpses far too often, and has a knack for throwing his guests lines to which there can be no amusing answer. Consequently, all sorts of dead ends and false starts have made the final edit. There are even outright no-nos, such as Lynch looking through the fourth wall to ask the crew for guidance, and Arnett trying to steer a scene back on track by interrupting Sharon Stone and prompting a supporting actor to speak instead.

In fairness to Arnett, even the predetermined elements haven’t been properly thought out. Each episode, for instance, has a scene where the celebrity wears a hidden earpiece and must repeat whatever Arnett tells them to say. This old prank has rewarded everyone from Chris Morris to Ant and Dec, but the earpiece-wearer normally embarrasses themselves in front of someone who isn’t in on the joke. Using the gag in a staged scene, where the stooge is talking to an actor, makes no sense.

With the too-bland regular cast (Lilan Bowden as a pathologist with no distinguishing characteristics; Haneefah Wood as the police chief who is also Seattle’s weary estranged wife) offering Arnett limited assistance, everything rests on the guests. Sharon Stone is strongly reminiscent of Deborah Meaden with her no-nonsense calm, while Conan O’Brien effortlessly bosses his instalment, making Arnett and everyone else crack up. Kumail Nanjiani’s mix of amiability and sharpness probably works best, creating several nice clashes with Arnett, notably the one where he tries to force him to perform in a Pakistani accent. Even in Murderville’s rare good moments, though, it’s just people we expect to be funny, being quite funny. Where’s the fun in that?



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