Populating Will Arnett’s latest comedy was a project in itself.
Arnett and his Sony-based Electric Ave. banner had secured the rights to adapt the BAFTA-winning BBC Three series. Murder in Successville, and now he needed a cadre of famous guest stars who would be willing to improve their way through his take on the murder mystery. His pitch to potential talent was simple, if a bit intimidating: “We basically do Law and order without a script,” Arnett recalled, explaining how he would play the lead detective and they would be his homicide intern, and together they would interview suspects and try to solve a murder.
Having landed the format some four years earlier, Arnett shopped around for his version, which features Krister Johnson (Hot humid american summer) as showrunner, and has seen Netflix step up in ways that other outlets haven’t. “They really got what we wanted to do,” says Arnett, who has done a lot of business with the streaming service before, after making BoJack Horseman, in flakes and the Development stopped revival there. The six episodes of the procedural detective comedy, as Murderville is being billed, were filmed over the summer, and will make their worldwide debut on February 3.
When it came to enlisting these guest celebrities, Conan O’Brien was Arnett’s first request, and a kind of indicator as to whether the industry types would be on board. If O’Brien was there, Arnett reasoned, others would be too. So he showed the former late-night host a sizzling reel of the different but similar-toned UK original, then he assured O’Brien that it wouldn’t be more than two days’ work and, all as importantly, it would be fun – or at least he hoped it would be fun. Much to his relief, O’Brien agreed, and just as Arnett had anticipated, “Conan really got the game.” (The finished episode involves Arnett’s character reluctantly welcoming O’Brien, who plays himself, into a preposterous magic show murder case involving a rival, a former assistant, and a moms association.)
Arnett and his team of producers then rounded out their star-studded guest cast with a funny (or so far, secretly funny) Hollywood who’s who: Annie Murphy, Ken Jeong, Kumail Nanjiani, Marshawn Lynch and, yes, Sharon Stone. Each faces its own episode, featuring Arnett, who plays Senior Detective Terry Seattle, Homicide Division, on the show. Without a script in hand, the invited celebrities have absolutely no idea what will happen next; and while they improvise their way through the case with Arnett, it’s up to them alone to name the killer by the end of the episode.
“I think people liked the idea that they could come in, they didn’t have to learn any dialogue and they could be themselves and just have a ride,” says Arnett, who acknowledges that it wasn’t not easy to sell. “And I have to give these people credit because it’s scary as fuck.”
Of course not everyone involved in the project entered it blind. In fact, there was a team of eight writers who mapped out each episode, including who would be the victim, the culprit, and the suspects each time. There were also loose scripts, though they had significant holes in them as the guest stars worked entirely off the cuff. “And if it all goes wrong, I should go sideways too,” says Arnett, who is joined in each episode by cast members Haneefah Wood (as Chief Rhonda Jenkins-Seattle), Lilan Bowden (medical examiner Amber Kang) and Philip Smithey (Detective Darren “Daz” Phillips).
Iain K. Morris (Intermediate) and Brennan Shroff (Southern Belles) shared directing duties for the comedy series, which features Marc Forman, Jonathan Stern, Peter Principato and Brian Steinberg as well as original British star Tom Davis, British creator Andy Brereton and British director James De Frond as as executive producers. For Arnett, who also serves as an executive producer, the series comes at a particularly busy time. He has a slew of projects already set or forthcoming across live action and animated film and TV, not to mention his popular Unintelligent podcast, which Amazon recouped by eight figures last spring.
Now like Murderville’As the Feb. 3 launch nears, Arnett feels hopeful, albeit pragmatic: “I’d love to do more if it works and people respond,” he says of his latest series. “And if people just shrug their shoulders and say, ‘Yeah, okay,’ then great, we had a lot of fun.”