From one angle, Apple TV+’s The Afterparty feels like a glorified storytelling exercise: It’s a murder mystery that unfolds over eight episodes, each styled in a different genre to match the perspective of a different character. From another, it’s just a good time — a half-hour-ish comedy that plays with familiar TV and movie tropes, without taking any of them, or itself, too seriously. As its characters will keep reminding you, it all depends on how you look at it.
The story begins, of course, with a death. 30something pop star Xavier (Dave Franco) has been dashed against the rocks below his sleek beachside mansion, where he’d been hanging out with old classmates after their 15-year high school reunion. The first detective on the scene, Danner (Tiffany Haddish) realizes immediately that the culprit must be someone in their midst, and sets about taking their statements — or, as she puts it, hearing their “mind movies.” She’s even brought a bag of popcorn to snack on while hearing them play out.
The Afterparty is stuffed with actors who tend to be the funniest parts of whatever project they’re in, but who meld together here as the ensemble of a comedy geek’s dreams. Sam Richardson stars as sweet nerd Aniq, for whom the night seemed to be developing like a rom-com, at least until the whole murder part. For Brett (Ike Barinholtz), it’s a Fast and the Furious-style actioner, down to gravelly pronouncements about the importance of family.
Yasper (played by Ben Schwartz, a scene-stealer among scene-stealers) sees himself as the star of a musical, complete with a side-splitting Hamilton-inspired number written by Jon Lajoie and Crazy Ex-Girlfriend alum Jack Dolgen. Ilana Glazer, Zoe Chao and Jamie Demetriou each get their turn in the spotlight too, while John Early and Tiya Sircar pop in smaller roles. The roster is no less stacked behind the camera — creator Christopher Miller (the 21 Jump Street films, The Lego Movie, etc.) directs all seven of the episodes sent to critics, while the writing staff includes talents from The Good Place, Search Party and Single Parents.
Their collective comedic gifts, along with a brisk sense of pacing, keep The Afterparty loose and funny as the stakes rise and the mystery deepens. Aniq may be desperate to clear his own name, but his best strategy involves asking each partygoer to write down whether or not they have diarrhea. Brett’s potentially deadly rivalry with Xavier is exemplified by a literal pissing contest. In this universe, even anonymous stalkers take the time to follow up a threat promising “Your gonna wish you never came” with a swift correction: “*You’re.”
Maybe more importantly, The Afterparty‘s unpretentious sense of humor prevents it from getting lost in its own contrivances. In the first episode, Danner explains the thesis of the entire series: “We’re all stars of our own movie. The same thing could happen, but you see it in a different way.” In another show, such directness might read as clunky or pretentious, especially once the same basic idea is repeated a few times. Cheerfully delivered by Haddish, it sounds like the promise of a good time.
Perhaps a bit of self-deconstruction is only fair, considering how meticulously The Afterparty picks apart other genres to put them back together. Miller demonstrates a confident grasp of the aesthetics that define each genre — how the camera moves in an upbeat musical versus a slick action thriller, how lighting can transform a set from romantic to spooky, even how subtle tweaks in costume can turn a twee love interest into a sexy one — and his delight in showing off the tricks of the trade signal affection, not contempt. Anyone can make winking references to millennial teen comedies. It takes care and attention to replicate that Can’t Hardly Wait letter-moving scene with a straight face, and make it feel like one’s own.
The concept of multiple perspectives is probably as old as storytelling itself, and even the genre-switching execution isn’t wholly original — it was only last year that AMC’s Kevin Can F—k Himself tried to subvert the multi-cam sitcom by fusing it with a gritty crime drama. In The Afterparty, the shifts nudge us to think more critically about the framing of the stories we consume. As the season progresses, it brushes up against more sober conversations about how misunderstood or incomplete narratives can harm people, how accepted tropes can shape our understanding of real-world concerns like policing and how our investment in our own narratives can render us oblivious to someone else’s.
But only just, and only to the extent that the show can make them amusing, as with a runner about no one remembering Walt (Demetriou) no matter how many times he tries to assert himself. The Afterparty is a class valedictorian at an all-night rager. It’s smart, with thoughtful ideas to offer those who feel like engaging with them — but it’s concerned first and foremost with having a good time.
And why not? There’ll be time enough later to go back and rewatch for jokes or clues we missed the first time. For now, it’s enough to sit back and appreciate that it’s pulling off what might be the most difficult trick of all: Showing us a blast, and making it look easy.