A review of a televised, semi-improvised, murder mystery
Based on Murder in Successville, a semi-improvised sitcom airing in Britain from 2015 to 2017, Murderville is the NETFLIX version starring Will Arnett that premiered in February 2022.
I wanted to like it.
I really did.
MURDERVILLE is a scripted murder mystery where Will Arnett plays a self-interested detective who is assigned a new partner every week to solve a murder.
The cast knows the story and most of what they are going to say. The guest in each episode is a celebrity who has no idea what will happen except that they will assist Arnett through the investigation and decide which suspect is the murderer at the end of the show.
Like many televised shows incorporating improvised elements, MURDERVILLE feels like nobody trusted that the improvisation would work and relied instead on over scripted elements that remove risk, vulnerability or interest.
MURDERVILLE isn’t the first show to do this. THANK GOD YOU’RE HERE was an Australian improvised show taking guest celebrities into scenarios they became aware of only when they first walked onto the set. The cast immediately exclaimed, “THANK GOD YOU’RE HERE!” as the guest entered the office, spaceship, aeroplane or other location.
The supportive welcome immediately set the guest at ease with the knowledge that the entire cast was there to support them. THANK GOD YOU’RE HERE ran 2006-2009. It was the most successful new show in Australia of 2006
I taught some of the cast years later who told me that the show was originally a last-minute, mid-season addition to the television lineup.
With the first season of popularity, the producers of THANK GOD YOU’RE HERE decided they had to protect the success and hired writers to ‘optimize the entertainment value’. The improvisers fought to maintain the improvisation content and only regained pieces of what they were originally doing in season 3.
By the time the series was being marketed around the world, the Americans were purchasing full scripts where the cast completely over-ran the guests, minimizing their participation and offers.
I remember one episode where actress Mo’Nique was the guest and was pushed by the cast down the narrow path of their planned script. She was asked if she had a good time. She enthusiastically replied, “Yeah, but I was always wrong.”
If the guest in an improvisation group feels they are wrong, then the improvisers around her have failed.
When producers get their hands on improvisation ideas they throw bad logic at it:
“We NEED to pad the show with ‘safe’ laughs”
“We need gimmicks, gags and games that will work regardless of the guest’s abilities.”
“We can’t trust a guest who doesn’t know the story or how to make things funny.”
I’ve heard these arguments from producers. I’ve been in a couple of shows where these are the arguments that direct the artistic path of the show.
So WHY MAKE AN IMPROVISATION BASED SHOW??? The two-part answer for that question is simple. Producers think it’s cheap and that audiences want to see celebrities in ‘high risk’ situations where they might fail.
Ignoring the dismissive attitude about paying trained improvisers what they are worth, it’s easy to see how these shows fail when the people in charge have such fear about the RISK that successful improvisation embraces.
Watch a few episodes of MURDERVILLE. As the first season progresses you’ll note how little the guess speaks or is aloud to offer anything of personal value.
There are notable moments when stronger personalities like Sharon Stone steal control back from Arnett but these moments are rare.
And when charming guests like Kumail Ali Nanjiani want to offer input or engage in discussion, they are cut off or ignored. One exceptionally difficult moment to watch is the one where Annie Murphy is talked over, ignored and frustrated in a scene where she is trying to get information from a french chef while Weill Arnett destroys the pastry she has made for no reason and interrupts her while she is obviously frustrated and not having a good time.
Will Arnett is a funny guy and has his moments but this show could use an overhaul and a couple of actual improvisers coaching the cast and production. Embrace the risk, support the guest and find the edge beyond “scripted fart jokes” and extremely lame and often downright boring content.
Every country has attempted improvised content. Finland had an ongoing dramatic series. Norway has an interesting Political commentary. Where there is success you’ll find trained improvisers and people willing to let them fly.
In the majority of situations, it’s not like that at all. I think we’ll have to keep going to theatres where MOST improvisers are still willing to risk and be vulnerable. Those of you on stage who are protecting yourselves with over formulation and running from the values of truly successful improvisation, go take a look at MURDERVILLE to see where your future lays.
There’s a better way.