Phil Lord and Chris Miller are among Hollywood’s most distinctive voices. After years of writing, directing and/or producing delightfully zany comedies on the big screen (21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie, Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse, The Mitchells Vs The Machines), the duo return to their TV roots. Miller is the creator and director of Apple TV’s The Afterparty with Lord serving as producer and one of the writers.
The plot is simple and the storytelling is inventive in this eight-episode murder mystery comedy which boasts of a cast that reads like a wishlist of funny people—Tiffany Haddish, Sam Richardson, Ben Schwartz, Ike Barinholtz and Dave Franco, among others. During a high school reunion afterparty, someone is found murdered. Each episode recounts what went down that fateful evening by giving us a different character’s perspective, each told through a different genres, ranging from mushy rom-com and Fincher-esque paranoid thriller to zany animation and Superbad-style coming-of-age high school comedy.
The victim is a hollow Hollywood heartthrob Xavier (the inimitable Dave Franco playing an obnoxious Justin Bieber-like figure with a worrying authenticity). The chief suspect (and our hero) is Aniq, an endearing Sam Richardson. All Aniq wanted to do at the reunion was finally confess his love to the one that got away – Zoe (Modern Love’s Zoe Chao). Also after Zoe’s affection is her ex-husband Brett (Ike Barinholtz essentially reprising his character from Blockers). On a mission to help Aniq clear his name and get the girl of his dreams, is his lovable, loyal best friend Yasper (the delightfully dynamic Ben Shwartz who continues to make everything he’s a part of instantly funnier). Also among the group of reunioners-turned-murder suspects is the mysterious Chelsea (Ilana Glazer) and Walt (Jamie Demetrio, who you’ll remember as the weird teeth guy from Fleabag). Walt is that dude from high school who no one really remembers or acknowledges, but he’s not really worth going into. Basically, if Agatha Christie’s subjects were sheltered, avocado-smoothie sipping twenty-somethings from LA.
Here to crack the case and identify the killer is Detective Danner (a mostly wasted Tiffany Haddish) who wants to solve the crime, but also get the goss. The premise is both hilariously ridiculous and oddly believable. Unresolved high school drama has led to murder so, to solve the case, Detective Danner has to wade through all the high school drama, as old grudges, confessions, hooks ups and breakups come gushing out of the woodwork.
Between its ambitious concept and a sparkling cast of comedy big-hitters, based on the six out of eight episodes I’ve watched, The Afterparty is exactly what you’d expect from the Lord and Miller school of refusing-to-think-inside-the-box storytelling. But while the series wins on a macro level with its inventive genre-hopping structure, it proves far less remarkable on the micro level– the characters and comedy. The result is an inconsistent series whose individual parts are greater than their sum. To that end, The Afterparty feels more like an anthology than a series–an uneven, mixed bag of chapters that range from functional to inspired.
What keeps you invested, or at least curious, then, is to see which genre they’ll dive into in the next episode, more than the whodunit plot or fairly enjoyable characters. The glorious talent attached to The Afterparty ensures the show is never not watchable, but when it doesn’t have a new genre to hide behind, the writing and laughs only really leap off the screen in fits and starts.
Of the six episodes I’ve seen, the two stellar standouts were Yasper’s musical episode and the Zoe’s animated episode (no surprises there, given no one does animation quite like Lord and Miller). Wacky innovation at its finest led by Ben Schwartz at his dorky comedic best, the Yasper episode is an upbeat flamboyant blast featuring a number of foot-tapping musical numbers (which I really hope they release as part of the official album). My favourite was easily the Lonely Island-style rap number titled We Only Get One Shot Twice.
While the enjoyable coming-of-age-high-school-comedy of a fifth episode is worth mentioning solely for its peppy soundtrack of throwback gems (everything from Chamillionare to Shakira to the Black Eyed Peas), it’s the sixth episode – Zoe, that steals the show. The almost entirely animated chapter is a masterful blend of whimsical imagination and pure heart. Zoe’s account of the night takes us through the story of a woman struggling to negotiate who she wants to be vs who the idiotic men around her, and her responsibilities as a mother, need her to be. It’s a genuinely touching self-contained saga of self-love in which one of the most affecting moments involves a bear with faces for arms and legs.
While The Afterparty stands tall as an impressive experiment more than it does as a comedy you can’t get enough of, it’s hardly an essential part of the brilliant Lord and Miller body of work. The problem is simple. While it can certainly pass for compelling storytelling, I’m just not sure that form triumphing over content is something you’d want from a comedy.
Director: Christopher Miller
Cast: Tiffany Haddish, Sam Richardson, Ike Barinholtz, Ben Schwartz, Dave Franco, Jamie Demetriou, Ilana Glazer, John Early, Zoe Chao
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