Apple TV+’s newest comedy The Afterparty is a lifeless, listless and laughless murder mystery in seven parts told by dozens of narrators. The premise is novel: Each episode, the first three of which premiere Friday, parodies a different storytelling genre.
Executive produced, written and directed by Christopher Miller and Phil Lord of The Lego Movie fame — and starring a who’s who of contemporary comedians — the show had everything going for it. It is, however, an almost complete misfire.
The Afterparty is neither funny nor fun enough to ever create an identity stronger than any of what it’s lampooning.
The Afterparty review
In the first episode of The Afterparty, we learn that pop star and activist Xavier (played by Dave Franco) is dead. Detective Danner (Tiffany Haddish) and her colleague Culp (John Early) have only a few hours to gather statements before they’re replaced by a higher-profile detective’s arrival.
Danner’s chief (Mel Rodriguez) doesn’t think she’s up to solving the case and doesn’t want her anywhere near it, for fear that she’ll ruin things. (There’s intense media scrutiny hanging over the dire events because of the celebrity of the victim.) So naturally, she pretends she’s in charge anyway.
So who are the suspects? Xavier’s high school classmates. They were all there for a reunion.
A lineup of potential killers
There’s highly strung Aniq (Sam Richardson), who’s still in love with divorcee Zoe (Zoe Chao), whose ex-husband Brett (Ike Barinholtz) has serious anger problems. There also Aniq’s loud and obnoxious wingman, Yasper (Ben Schwart), former class president Chelsea (Ilana Glazer), juvenile prankster Ned (Kelvin Yu), demure and forgettable Walt (Jamie Demetriou), very intense Indigo (Genevieve Angelson), pregnant Jennifer (Tiya Sircar) and … pregnant Jennifer (Ayden Mayeri).
The trouble? They all have motive.
So Danner has to get them alone and take their statements. Each person’s perspective takes the form of a different film genre. Because Aniq was in love, his story comes out like a rom-com. Indigo’s unfolds like an existentialist noir. Brett’s plays like a Fast & Furious movie. Yasper’s is a musical.
Meanwhile Aniq, who looks like the best suspect on paper, tries to solve the murder on his own.
Seven perspectives, no laughs
The first thing to say about The Afterparty is that absolutely none of the actors in this show are the same age, which makes them coming together for a high school reunion very, very silly. Barinholtz, an extremely funny individual given little to do but glower, has 10 years on Glazer. They simply did not go to school together.
The show could have played this up a little more for comic effect, but it reads more like the producers just wanted to cast a bunch of people the writers knew and liked, logic be damned.
Frankly, the show could have played up … well anything a little more for comic effect. The first three episodes debut on January 28 — and I laughed exactly once during that entire 105-minute block (at a fake movie where Channing Tatum and Dave Franco play Hall & Oates).
The rest of the time I waited impatiently for another joke. It’s not even like the show is telling jokes that don’t land (though there are a couple). It seems like the writers (Bridger Winegar, Rachel H. Smith, Anthony King, Kassia Miller, Nicole Delaney, Jack Dolgen and producer/directors Phil Lord and Christopher Miller) weren’t really in the mood to joke around at all.
In The Afterparty, everything’s not awesome
I kind of understand the impulse to play things semi-straight when viewed from the perspective of Lord and Miller’s career path. They got their start with cult cartoon show Clone High, which still has passionate defenders (and looks to be getting a reboot soon, as everything will eventually). Then they spent a few years in the doldrums of thankless writers’ rooms.
It wasn’t until they were given the children’s book Cloudy With a Chance of Meatballs that they really took off. No one had high hopes for the 2009 movie, but the pair made something warm, anarchic and laugh-out-loud funny.
They’ve been thus positioned as two of the only comedy directors who “get it,” however you want to quantify that. Given, for instance, the incredibly thankless job of turning mildewy TV show 21 Jump Street into a new movie, they made it a hysterical essay on the futility of having to make the movie in the first place. Somehow they did it again for 22 Jump Street and came away with an even funnier product. It kind of felt like they were untouchable for a minute.
The Lego Movie and the aftermath
Then they made The Lego Movie, fitfully funny and chasing the same “don’t think too hard about this” high of the Jump Street movies (the second of which came out the same year as The Lego Movie). A lot of people loved it, but there was something a little off about making the same joke three times, especially when that joke is “can you believe they paid us to do this?”
Well … yes, because it’s not as though Lord and Miller scoffed at the idea of selling toys, even if they could make jokes a little more their style and speed.
They then boarded Spider-Man: Into The Spiderverse and a half dozen more Lego movies as producer, and Solo: A Star Wars Story, which they were going to direct but left when they clashed with producer Kathleen Kennedy. Kinda felt like the joke was on us.
These singularly voiced comic creators had helped flood the market with interchangeable product and haven’t managed to replicate any of the early whimsy of their other work. And they don’t seem in a hurry to return to that. These guys — whose whole thing was, “What a wasteland of pop culture we inhabit” — were now just making it worse.
I was really and truly hoping to see some flash of their early creativity at work in The Afterparty, but there’s nothing to latch onto at all. The performers, all funny on their own, are encouraged to just do what the labored writing calls for. Miller directs with the same flatness that characterizes every made-for-Netflix movie. The color scheme is a stale neon blue. And worst of all is the parodic “style,” the whole reason the show has for being.
Miller described The Afterparty as a passion project when the first trailer dropped last year, and I could see that on paper. Watching it now, I genuinely couldn’t believe that Miller had come anywhere near this show. It’s flat. And the thing about parody is you have to have a clear subject and clear reversals of intentions.
It probably sounded like a great opportunity to make eight mini-movies over the course of a season of TV, each in a different idiom. But The Afterparty just reads like the creative team hasn’t seen a movie before and has only had them described to them. (I know that’s not true, because every other line of dialogue in The Afterparty contains a reference to a movie you don’t for a second believe these characters saw.)
What action movie specifically is being targeted in the “Brett” episode? What musicals are being parodied in the truly excruciating “Yasper” episode? Was anyone laughing on the set of The Afterparty?
Whatever perspective with which you choose to look at this show, if you’re having fun, it’s not mine.
Watch The Afterparty on Apple TV+
The first three episodes of The Afterparty premiere January 28 on Apple TV+. New episodes arrive on the following Fridays.
Watch on: Apple TV+
Scout Tafoya is a film and TV critic, director and creator of the long-running video essay series The Unloved for RogerEbert.com. He has written for The Village Voice, Film Comment, The Los Angeles Review of Books and Nylon Magazine. He is the author of Cinemaphagy: On the Psychedelic Classical Form of Tobe Hooper, the director of 25 feature films, and the director and editor of more than 300 video essays, which can be found at Patreon.com/honorszombie.