There’s ambition for ambition’s sake and then there’s ambition by design. “The Afterparty” — an eight-episode comedic murder-mystery where each episode is not only told from a different character’s perspective, but in a distinct genre befitting each person’s particular story — is 100 percent the latter. Created by Chris Miller (who also directs every episode) and written by Miller, his long-time creative partner Phil Lord, and a talented staff, the Apple TV+ limited series puts its creative team to great use, building out an engaging, ongoing whodunit with striking individual pieces, including rom-com, musical, and animated episodes. But rather than limit their eclectic talent exhibition to what the production staff can do behind the camera, Miller & Co. enlist an enviable cast of comedians to flex more than just their chuckle muscles onscreen.
While a little lengthy in parts and with a central puzzle that will entice devout sleuths more than casual fans (there is apparently a cipher sprinkled throughout the series, allowing sharp-eyed fans to discover bonus clues ahead of the narrative), “The Afterparty” is dependably enjoyable and repeatedly clever through seven episodes, showcasing impressive range from the likes of Sam Richardson, Ben Schwartz, and Zoë Chao — not to mention convincing genre send-ups from a team who continue to expand their professional attributes as far as their imaginations will take them.
The premiere dives right into the central question, as police work a crime scene at a private beach in the Bay Area. The victim: Xavier (Dave Franco), a pop star in the vein of Justin Bieber, who’s fallen to his death from his cliff-side mansion. The suspects are all still gathered in the home — guests from a post-reunion party for their high school class — and it’s up to Detective Danner (Tiffany Haddish) to find out who’s responsible for the deceased singer, actor, and “celebrity humanitarian.” (Early clips from Xavier’s films are an immediate highlight, from his adaptation of “Hungry, Hungry, Hippos” alongside Will Forte to Channing Tatum stealing the best episode’s best joke in “Private Eyes,” the Hall & Oates biopic.)
To nail down her suspect, Danner says she wants to hear everyone’s “mind movie.” She believes people see themselves as the star of their own film, and thus the only way to put together a clear picture of the night’s proceedings is to experience every party guest’s motion-picture from their perspective, “Rashômon” style.
Aaron Epstein / Apple TV+
Early evidence points to Aniq (Richardson), an escape room designer who showed up to the reunion looking for love. His high school crush, Zoe (Chao), is recently divorced and her personal invitation got Aniq’s heart racing once more. As he recounts his night to Detective Danner, Aniq stops to ask if she really wants all these sentimental details, and she assures him she does. Anything could turn out to be a case-cracking clue, but she also enjoys hearing a good story. Haddish’s off-kilter cop is easy to believe as someone who will munch popcorn while taking down testimony, making her an ideal audience proxy as we laugh along with her, while still sussing out who, in fact, has done it.
Other possible perps include Chelsea (Ilana Glazer), a popular girl in high school who’s hit a rough patch in the present; Yasper (Ben Schwartz), Aniq’s best friend and Xavier’s former bandmate, who’s still pursuing a music career; Walt (Jamie Demetriou), a forgettable figure who’s always around but can’t stop himself from blending into the background; and Brett (Ike Barinholtz), Zoe’s ex-husband who sees himself as Dom Toretto from the “Fast & Furious” franchise.
Brett’s episode parodies action movies and falls right in the “22 Jump Street” directors’ sweet spot — you will be convinced that Barinholtz, perhaps best known as the wild card nurse in “The Mindy Project,” can kick serious ass — but it’s seeing Miller expand into fresh territory that proves most exciting. Chelsea’s horror episode is cloaked in shadows, with quick cuts eliciting jump scares and ominous figures shifting in the background. Walt’s entry is a flashback to high school, paying homage to teen party movies with ’90s clothes, hairstyles, and music cues. Danner even gets her own cop show (just make “23 Jump Street” already, please?), but it’s Yasper’s musical that exhibits the best of “The Afterparty’s” genre-hopping capabilities. Not only are the songs catchy and goofy in equal measure (there’s an entire verse about actor-turned-director Eric Stoltz, and it works), but Schwartz’s enthusiasm is dialed in to such a charismatic degree you’ll want more songs, more dancing, more Schwartz by the time the credits roll.
Aaron Epstein / Apple TV+
That endorsement goes eight-fold for Richardson. While the benevolent “Veep” breakout has been stretching himself in a variety of projects for years — from starring roles in “Detroiters” and “Champaign, ILL” to memorable supporting turns in “The Tomorrow War” and “I Think You Should Leave” — too much of his best work has been unjustly buried or otherwise overlooked. For anyone who’s made the effort to track his career, Richardson’s range has been evident for some time now, and Miller is clearly one of those fans. “The Afterparty’s” predominant connective tissue is its murder-mystery, with Detective Danner asking the questions that push the investigation forward, but Aniq is the emotional glue keeping us invested throughout. His romance with Chao (who’s also quite strong) isn’t isolated to the first episode; it’s revisited from various perspectives and extended in the present. As if that’s not enough to handle, Aniq and Yasper also venture off on their own to clear the puzzlemaker’s name as citizen detectives, much to the actual detectives’ chagrin. (John Early co-stars as Haddish’s partner, in case you thought this cast couldn’t get any better.) Richardson is integral to every facet of “The Afterparty,” and its success illustrates his versatile talents.
Watching anyone play the same scene over and over could grow tiring, but each iteration feels distinct thanks to the combination of new looks (courtesy of Miller, director of photography Carl Herse, and production designer Bruce Hill, among the rest of a dexterous crafts team) and deft adjustments by the cast. Television is often discussed as a collaborative medium, but few programs take full advantage of each employed artist. Like any good shindig, “The Afterparty” depends on every person involved to bring their best stuff, and then together, they turn it out.
“The Afterparty” premieres Friday, January 28 with three episodes on Apple TV+. New episodes will be released weekly.
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