LONDON: On paper, the British TV series “Murder in Successville” sounds like a tough sell: An improv-based murder mystery starring a different guest each episode, and featuring a series of hyper-exaggerated celebrity impersonations. All with one notable twist — the guest doesn’t know what’s going on. In the way that only the best TV can, it worked, and the show ran for three seasons, earning a passionate UK following.
The Netflix decisionmakers were equally won over, it seems, and commissioned a US remake — “Murderville”. Will Arnett stars as homicide cop Terry Seattle, and is joined by a procession of new partners, including Conan O’Brien, Sharon Stone, Annie Murphy, Kumail Nanjiani and Ken Jeong. Each episode throws Terry and his new recruit into the deep end of the investigation into a murder (albeit without the celebrity impressions from the UK version). Since the guest has no script and knows nothing about the case, to keep the story going, Arnett and the supporting cast must improv their way through, nudging the celebrity towards unmasking the killer.
Though UK show co-creator Andy Brereton and star/writer Tom Davis (who played DI Desmond Sleet, the character upon whom Seattle is based) serve as executive producers on “Murderville,” there remains a real sense of disconnect between the excellent original and this sadly lackluster facsimile. Sure, there are some funny moments when guests such as Nanjiani and Murphy visibly begin to lose their composure during some of the more ridiculous scenes, but “Murderville” very quickly becomes too formulaic, too obviously contrived, to be as entertaining as the UK show. Arnett does his best, but he lacks Davis’ snappy improv ability at times, and his efforts to wrestle the story back on track are too visible to the audience.
Similarly, where guests on the UK show seemed almost cowed into humility by the talented cast of actor/comedians around them, stars such as O’Brien seem to think of “Murderville” as a vehicle for their jokes, rather than a story in which they play a supporting role.
That all tips the show too far towards self-importance, and even the comedy chops of Arnett can’t pull it back.