“The Afterparty” isn’t exactly subtle about its conceit. The new Apple TV Plus comedy opens with Detective Danner (Tiffany Haddish) telling a room full of suspects that “we’re all stars of our own movie — the same thing could happen, but you see it in a different way.” In order to solve the murder of their obnoxious classmate Xavier (Dave Franco), she says, they’ll each have to tell her their version of how their ill-fated high school reunion went down — or, in an even more blunt line, that she wants to hear their “mind-movie.”
Each subsequent episode of “The Afterparty” features a different character retelling the same night in a way that lets creator and director Chris Miller take on a different genre each time. (Miller’s longtime writing partner Phil Lord, with whom he worked on “Into the Spider-Verse,” “Clone High,” and more, executive produces here.) Determined former nerd Aniq (Sam Richardson), for example, remembers the night through a rose-colored romantic comedy lens that makes his every misstep still seem somewhat charming. His rival Brett (Ike Barinholtz) sees himself more as the ass-kicking star of an action comedy, while class president turned hot mess Chelsea (Ilana Glazer) feels stuck and paranoid in a straight up horror movie. In one episode that proves both narratively important and creatively ambitious, Aniq and Brett’s love interest Zoë (Zoë Chao) directly addresses the fact that her character’s been something of a cipher by admitting that she’s been having her own identity crisis. To illustrate her inner confusion, she tells Danner her story by animating it into a cartoon, which fits Zoë’s background as an artist, makes her a fuller person instead of some romantic archetype, and gives Chao more room to show off the breadth of her comedic charm.
Making every character tackle a different genre is a clever challenge of a premise, especially as Miller gets more specific with his directing. It’s hard to say exactly how successful the show’s many clues and misdirections are as a whole without seeing its final revealing chapter (Apple provided 7 out of the series’ total 8 episodes for review), but the mystery’s at least fun to unpack along the way as each character lets slip something new. And for as much as the format trickery forms the spine of “The Afterparty,” the show becomes more intriguing and much funnier than it might’ve been thanks to the sharp actors embodying each different genre. Haddish, for example, finds every ounce of comedy in her character’s expository role and eventual solo procedural episode, while sitcom stalwart Ben Schwartz brings his reliable brand of scrappy earnestness to a musical episode that’s fun, but could’ve used a bit more tuning up. (“Crazy Ex-Girlfriend” really spoiled us as far as TV musical parodies go.)
The most impressive and interesting moments of the show, though, lie outside of its bingo boards of genre tropes. Seeing how each character sees both themselves and each other is revealing and even, as in the case of the perpetually overlooked Walt (Jamie Demetriou), downright depressing. (That Xavier remains just about the same level of douche throughout feels about right — and as played by an impish Franco, somehow doesn’t get old.) While Chao and Haddish especially impress in their crucial supporting performances, it’s Richardson who has the hardest job to pull off. As the prime suspect and lynchpin of almost every story, Richardson has to give several distinct performances at once; seeing how he shifts Aniq’s characterization just enough to fit each point of view describing it inevitably becomes a highlight of every episode.
It’s not shocking that Richardson would end up the standout here, since his résumé of stealing comedy scenes in an instant is one of the more impressive in recent memory (see: “Veep,” “Ted Lasso,” “I Think You Should Leave,” etc. and so on). “The Afterparty” just proves that Richardson both deserves more leading roles and could handle them in just about any genre, besides. If anyone in Hollywood wants their projects to stand out, they’ll be smart to give Richardson more chances to do exactly that.
“The Afterparty” premieres Friday, January 28 on Apple TV Plus.