When you hear that Apple TV+’s The Afterparty was created by Christopher Miller — a.k.a. one half of the Lord-Miller team responsible for the 21 Jump Street and Lego Movie franchises, among others — and features a small army of some of the funniest actors working today, including Sam Richardson, Tiffany Haddish, Ben Schwartz, Ilana Glazer, and Ike Barinholtz, it would be safe to expect a laugh riot from beginning to end.
The Afterparty is not really that — not because it’s trying and failing at gut-busting comedy, but because it’s only vaguely interested in the concept. It’s a murder-mystery parody, yes, but its primary focus is on playing with perspective and genre, resulting in a clever and charming ride that frequently serves up fun surprises.
Haddish plays Danner, a California cop called to the scene when actor and pop star Xavier (Dave Franco) is murdered in the wake of his high-school class’ 15-year reunion. With her captain threatening to bring in a more famous detective in the morning, Danner has one night in Xavier’s oceanfront mansion to identify which of his former classmates did the deed. Was it lovelorn nerd Aniq (Richardson)? Xavier’s ex-bandmate Yasper (Schwartz)? Valedictorian-turned-hot-mess Chelsea (Glazer)? Aniq’s longtime crush Zoë (Zoë Chao)? Zoë’s loutish ex-husband Brett (Barinholtz)? Or maybe Walt (Jamie Demetriou), who insists he was friends with all of them, even though nobody remembers him?
Each episode spotlights a different character, presenting the events of the reunion and its afterparty through that person’s eyes, often replaying the same events from episode to episode to demonstrate how much each perspective on it diverges. “We’re all stars of our own movie,” Danner tells Aniq in the first episode. “The same thing could happen, but you all see it in a different way.”
This kind of shifting POV storytelling barely even needs to be explained after so many others have tried (Marge Simpson: “You liked Rashomon!” Homer: “That’s not how I remember it!”). Miller, though, puts a pop-cultural twist on it, taking Danner’s “stars of our own movie” idea almost literally. (Danner even has a bag of popcorn in her purse to enjoy as she listens to their stories.) Aniq’s account of pursuing Zoë through the night positions him as a rom-com hero, while Brett fancies himself as Dom from the Fast and the Furious films, pulling off badass capers and forever blathering on about “family.” Yasper gets to live out his musical dreams with a bunch of choreographed song-and-dance numbers, including a Hamilton-esque tune where Yasper sings that “We all get one shot… twice!” There’s also a psychological horror episode spotlighting Chelsea, an animated adventure for Zoë, and a high-school flashback story as told by the long-suffering Walt. Even Danner herself eventually gets her own movie of sorts, in which the start of her career on the force is framed as a gritty cop drama.
As you would expect from a project dabbling in so many different genres, some experiments work better than others. Aniq’s rom-com has to double as our introduction to the whole story and its large cast of characters(*), so it can’t fully give itself over to the Never Been Kissed of it all. The flashback episode features Richardson and company amusingly playing teenagers, but it also doesn’t feel quite enough like a high-school movie. And a few of the stories are so similar in visual style that it’s occasionally easy to forget what’s being parodied that time out. But the Yasper episode feels like the musical showcase Ben Schwartz’s entire career — and particularly Jean-Ralphio’s love of singing in Parks and Rec — has been building towards. And while Chao (Love Life) is less famous than many of her co-stars, she gets some of the season’s biggest laughs in both the animated and live-action portions of the Zoë episode.
(*) There are a bunch of additional classmates — plus John Early from Search Party as Danner’s partner — who don’t get their own episode. The Aniq story briefly takes a breather so that we get a pretentious, Ingmar Bergman-esque art film as told by the mysterious Indigo (Genevieve Angelson). But that’s a tease for additional digressions that never come.
If The Afterparty sometimes stumbles as it hops from genre to genre, the more fundamental Rashomon concept works quite well at illustrating how easily we all get lost in our own heads. By opening up with Aniq’s underdog pursuit of Zoë, for instance, the show conditions us to root for him to win her over, until her episode reveals that her feelings are a lot more complicated than he’s ever considered. And where Brett is so often a meathead in other people’s episodes, his Vin Diesel fantasies are so over-the-top — in one scene, he intimidates Xavier through his powerfully loud urinary stream — he becomes almost endearing. The actors all do well at tweaking their performances to accommodate whose POV and what genre we’re getting in any given episode.
By taking its characters’ emotions more seriously than you might expect, The Afterparty in turn has to treat the question of who killed Xavier, and why, as more than a joke. The season offers clues along the way, but it’s hard to fully judge the show without the final episode, which Apple didn’t provide to critics.
At one point, Danner interrupts Yasper’s latest musical number to ask him to skip ahead to the relevant parts of his story. He replies, “It’s gonna be worth it in the end. In the end, you’re gonna be like, ‘I wish I did more of this.’” The Afterparty could probably stand to lean more into its fundamental weirdness, but it’s an entertaining ride nonetheless. Get your own batch of popcorn ready.
The first three episodes of The Afterparty begin streaming Jan. 28 on Apple TV+, with additional episodes releasing weekly. I’ve seen seven of the eight episodes.