The Afterparty ought to be better than it is. In theory, Apple TV+’s comic murder-mystery about a high-school reunion gone awry has a lot going for it. It has an Apple budget. Its creators are Chris Miller and Phil Lord, who previously gave us the brilliant The Lego Movie. It has a cast of superior comic actors. How does something with such sparky potential come to feel so strangely flat?
The body of Xavier (Dave Franco), a Justin Bieber-esque singer clad in a purple suit with no shirt, is found dead on the rocks below his seafront mansion. Detective Danner (Tiffany Haddish) arrives to investigate, where she finds a party still going on. This is the dregs of a high-school reunion, some of whose attendees repaired to Xavier’s house after the school part. Cue a kind of live-action Californian millennial Cluedo, as Danner interviews the guests and tries to work out what befell their host. They are a mix of comic archetypes, like the nihilistic writer-type Indigo (Genevieve Angelson), forever with a martini in hand, and more believable figures, like Yasper (Ben Schwartz), who once upon a time was in a band with Xavier but now sells audiovisual equipment.
Each of the eight episodes focuses on a single character’s version of events, with the action alternating between the remembered past and the present, in which the investigation is taking place. As well as individual narrative voices, each character has their own visual style and director. First up is Aniq (Sam Richardson), with a tale of thwarted love. He is a sweet-hearted escape-room designer who sees the reunion as a chance to reconnect with Zoe (Zoe Chao), the one who got away. She seems keen, too, but there are impediments in the form of her ex, Brett (Ike Barinholtz) and the solicitous Xavier.
For British viewers, the main attraction of The Afterparty is the presence of Stath Lets Flats’ Jamie Demetriou as "Walt", a goofy nerd who the other guests struggle to remember. It takes a while to get used to his expressions and delivery being used in the service of another character. Once you do, he is probably the funniest thing about the series.
While its cast are generally likeable, and there’s a certain freshness about its commitment to being two things at once, too often it isn’t amusing enough to be enjoyed as pure comedy, or tense enough to be appreciated as a murder mystery. Too often it relies on basic puns, or sophomoric self-referentiality, to get a cheap gag rather than developing more complicated ones. As a case in point, Danner interrupts Aniq when he is describing Zoe taking off in Xavier’s helicopter. We’ve seen him looking sadly at the rising chopper, with the rain starting to fall.
“It was raining again?” Dinner asks.
“Well, it felt like it was raining, emotionally,” Aniq replies.
“But was it?”
“No. It was dry.”
This kind of thing happens throughout. It’s clever, but not in a clever way, and it’s all the more incongruous because the audience is otherwise invited to care about Aniq and Zoe’s relationship, which is established through a succession of cutesy-charming moments. (Surely it is time for a general ban on karaoke being used as a shorthand for revealing character traits.) Xavier is presented as a cartoonish bastard, so nobody seems to mind too much that he’s dead. By constantly undermining itself in this fashion, The Afterparty breaks what little jeopardy it manages to build. If it doesn’t care about these characters, why should we?