By Richard Roeper
Signal Contributing Writer
*** (out of four) A six-episode series available Thursdays on Netflix.
In the premiere episode of the Netflix procedural suspense comedy “Murderville,” Will Arnett’s Senior Detective Terry Seattle and his new partner Conan O’Brien are going “bad cop/worse cop” while interrogating David Wain’s Magic Melvin, who calls himself Magic Melvin because … wait for it … he’s a magician. (You were probably ahead of me on that.)
“A young woman was murdered against her will today!” bellows Terry as he leans in close and demands Magic Melvin explain just how a magician’s assistant was literally sawed in half onstage. At that point, Magic Melvin starts doing simple tricks, e.g., the quarter-behind-the-ear, handkerchiefs
suddenly appearing and disappearing — and Terry’s reactions go from amazed to astonished to BLOWN AWAY, and Arnett’s physicality is so hilarious and so over the top that Conan breaks and can’t hold back his laughter as he says, “No one gets that excited about a card trick,” and it is pure improv gold.
This is the conceit of “Murderville,” which is based on the BBC Three series “Murder in Successville”: Arnett more or less stays in character
as the pompous and clueless Terry, who in each episode is given a new celebrity partner playing themselves. “But here’s the catch,” says the narrator in that opening episode. “Conan isn’t being given a script. He has no idea what’s about to happen. Together, he and Terry will have to improvise their way through the case. But it’ll be up to Conan alone to name the killer.” And away we go with this breezy and creatively goofy six-part series, with O’Brien’s guest star turn followed by talented comedy veterans Kumail Nanjiani, Ken Jeong and Annie Murphy, as well as Sharon Stone and former pro football running back Marshawn Lynch.
As you might expect, the episodes with Lynch and Stone are relatively underwhelming compared to the laugh-out-loud antics with the comedy pros. Lynch displays some decent comedic chops; he’s just not Nanjiani or Jeong when it comes to going with the flow of the concept, timing his reactions or inserting a sly one-liner.
The same goes for Stone, who is a gamer and throws herself into the premise, but often goes for jokey asides instead of more layered humor.
In addition to the guest-star gimmick, “Murderville” features a trio of supporting players from the Crime TV Series playbook: Haneefah Wood as the no-nonsense Chief Rhonda Jenkins-Seattle, who is Terry’s boss and estranged wife; Philip Smithey as Darren “Daz” Phillips, Terry’s fellow detective who is now dating Rhonda and rarely contributes anything to the investigations, and Lilan Bowden as the medical examiner Amber Kang, who cheerfully delivers the gruesome details of the latest murder case. No matter who is in the room with Arnett, they have to bring their A game, as Arnett is the master at playing these types of gravel-voiced fools. (See: “Arrested Development.”) You can understand why it’s difficult for O’Brien to keep a straight face when Terry gives him the once-over and barks, “Good Lord … this ginger monstrosity is the biggest mistake in the history of city homicide!”
Then there’s Terry’s shrine to his former partner, Laurie, who was murdered 15 years ago. Laurie’s desk has remained completely untouched, as Terry points out items such as her uneaten, now 15-year-old breakfast burrito — and “her pet rabbit, Gulliver,” who is nothing but bones at this point. When Conan points out you’re allowed to feed a rabbit even after its owner is gone, Terry cuts him off and says that would have been disrespectful.
At the end of each episode, the chief comes in after Terry and his partner have rounded up the three prime suspects, says, “What is going on here?” and then reveals whether the celebrity has correctly identified the killer. That some guest detectives get it right while others miss the mark is further proof this is truly an improvisational exercise. Even Terry Seattle could spot that kind of evidence.