I’m happy to say that holiday TV is back—just look at the Halloween episode of Rutherford Falls or Abbott Elementary’s “Holiday Hookah.” But a festive special, while a thing of beauty, is only as good as the show itself. It’s no surprise, then, that Who Killed Santa? A Murderville Murder Mystery is just as unfunny as the series’ uninspired first season, with the same cheap, cynical feel as one of Netflix’s myriad Christmas films.
To recap, this February Netflix premiered Murderville, the US take on the UK series Murder in Successville, with Will Arnett starring as the rumpled detective Terry Seattle. Different celebrity guests, like Conan O’Brien and Marshawn Lynch, are thrown in the middle of goofy murder investigations where everyone around them has the script, while the stars must improvise.
The 50-minute holiday special Who Killed Santa? follows the same format, featuring Jason Bateman and Maya Rudolph as Terry’s trainee detectives. The Christmas edition of Murderville suffers from all the same lazy issues as Season 1, so lazy that I was tempted to just copy and paste my original review, but I digress.
Rudolph and Bateman help Terry discover who killed John “Johnny” Blaze (Sean Hayes), who was playing Santa at the city hall holiday party before being stabbed to death with a pointy candy cane (those things are wicked sharp). Bateman is pretty lackadaisical on set. He’s used to playing the straight man opposite Arnett from their Arrested Development days, but his energy in Who Killed Santa? is definitely that of someone who’s just showing up for the paycheck. Rudolph is more engaged—after all, she’s one of SNL’s most beloved alums—but her background as a comedic actor means that she’s a fairly safe choice of guest. Murderville’s best episode in its first season is the one featuring Lynch because he’s a sports star, not an actor, and his unpredictability made the show far more watchable. Meanwhile, it’s not necessarily that exciting when Bateman or Rudolph come up with a half-decent one-liner. (Thankfully, Lynch has a cameo in the Christmas special. He’s as great as ever.)
Everything about Who Killed Santa? comes across as Netflix’s low effort attempt to churn out more Christmas content, which is a shame because hilarious performers like Kurt Braunohler and Eliza Coupe (I’m still mourning Happy Endings) are wasted here. The set itself is soul-suckingly bland—Bateman even forgets it’s meant to be a city hall when filling in Rudolph on the case, and more accurately describes the building as an office. The show’s visual monotony is no surprise, though, considering the low bar set by Season 1.
Speaking of low effort, an extra celebrity guest is added to the special during the last 10 minutes. They’re truly just throwing in someone famous for the sake of it (and the person in question could have been decent if they were actually given a chance to be a part of the special).
There are moments that actually made me laugh aloud, though they are few and far between. (Bateman crying, “Oh Jesus, you dragged Sean Hayes into this?” as the dead Santa is de-bearded is genuinely very funny.) Most of the improv set-ups Terry pushes his trainees into are so torturously contrived that they don’t land, though Rudolph’s silliness is welcome. At one point she’s pretending to be a French cop and Bateman an Italian one, and their goofy ad-libs traded across a silent suspect reminded me of being around obnoxious theater kids who mostly communicate through bits.
If you’re lucky enough to get a break for the holidays, don’t spend it watching the Murderville Christmas special. Or do—watching absolute shite is a time-honored Christmas tradition.
Clare Martin is a cemetery enthusiast and Paste’s assistant comedy editor. Go harass her on Twitter @theclaremartin.