clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

‘The Afterparty’ and the Rise of the TV Comedy-Mystery

Phil Lord and Christopher Miller’s return to television adds to an upswing of series centered on the humorous side of crime

Hulu/Apple TV+/HBO Max/Ringer illustration

Coen brothers and their imitators aside, crime and comedy don’t always make for an intuitive mix. (Mare of Easttown wasn’t exactly a barrel of laughs.) On TV, exceptions like Bored to Death both proved the rule and remained stubbornly niche. Yet as the surprise hit of last fall, Hulu’s Only Murders in the Building struck a deceptively difficult balance. Over 10 episodes, what began as a lighthearted parody starring two finely aged hams and their obliging millennial sidekick grew into a genuinely compelling mystery with both suspense and emotional weight.

Part of the buzz, including recent speculation that the show’s three stars could cohost the Oscars, could be chalked up to the show’s weekly rollout, which drew out the central murder plot over weeks instead of hours. More still comes from our larger cultural fascination with true crime, now entrenched enough to merit a lighthearted takedown. But Only Murders in the Building also managed to have its Dimas Chicken Wraps and eat them, too. Not only did comedy legend Steve Martin show off his finely tuned ear for the true crime podcast, with its portentous voice-overs, awkwardly inserted ad reads, and rabid fans; along with cocreator John Hoffman, he also told a moving story about a trio of lost souls in the same New York apartment building. The jokes didn’t undercut the pathos of a study in urban loneliness, and the drama didn’t blunt the edge of the jokes.

Only Murders in the Building is an unusually effective example of the comedy-mystery, a subgenre that’s having something of a moment. In 2020, HBO Max’s The Flight Attendant turned an alcohol-fueled blackout into a tale of international intrigue and really nice coats. Also on HBO Max, Search Party just wrapped a five-season run that began as a missing persons case and never lost that crime-adjacent edge. On Friday, Netflix will debut The Woman in the House Across the Street From the Girl in the Window, a spoof of the Gone Girl–style thriller starring Kristen Bell as a lonely, wine-chugging suburbanite. Next month, Netflix will also release Murderville, a goofy improv comedy that pairs Will Arnett’s detective with celebrity guests asked to help solve a capital case. At the end of each episode, the guest has to guess who the killer is—without the help of a script.

Despite an increasingly crowded field, none of these entries are as ambitious and star-studded as The Afterparty, the limited series from producers Phil Lord and Christopher Miller that will kick off Friday on Apple TV+. After getting their start in television with the animated cult favorite Clone High, Lord and Miller have spent the past decade largely in the world of blockbuster franchises, sometimes to smashing success (The Lego Movie, Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse) and sometimes not (getting fired from Solo in favor of Ron Howard). They’re also prolific producers, with credits on everything from the high-concept indie Brigsby Bear to the apocalypse sitcom The Last Man on Earth.

With The Afterparty, the two-man team makes a triumphant return to TV. (Though in this case, one takes the lead; Miller is the sole creator and director, while Lord is credited as an executive producer.) At a time when the concept-driven comedies that define Lord and Miller’s signature style have trouble earning a theatrical release, The Afterparty embraces the expanded canvas of an episodic series—and the beefed-up budget that comes with a massive tech company as their distributor. To start, The Afterparty seems to have a relatively simple setup; the only real hint of its ambition is the star-studded cast, a constellation of comedic heavyweights ranging from Tiffany Haddish to Sam Richardson to Ilana Glazer. It’s only once the show moves past the pilot, its longest and weakest episode, that The Afterparty reveals what it’s really up to.

The Afterparty’s titular gathering takes place after the characters’ 15-year high school reunion in prosperous Marin County, just north of San Francisco. (“Started from the upper-middle, now we here!” one character not-inaccurately observes.) Most of the reunited live fairly average lives—except Xavier (Dave Franco), a snotty rich kid in a ska band turned mononymous pop star. When Xavier tumbles off the deck of his boxy megamansion onto the beach below, it’s up to Haddish’s Detective Danner to interview his guests one by one in search of the real killer.

If The Afterparty is meant to have a hero, it’s Richardson’s Aniq, a designer of escape rooms now trapped in a real-life bind. Circumstantial evidence, plus a 15-year grudge, makes him the primary suspect; it’s up to Aniq and his best friend, Yasper (Ben Schwartz), to find the real culprit. But Aniq’s episode is the most straightforward, and the most unwittingly clichéd. He’s still hung up on his teenage crush, Zoe (Zoe Chao), who Xavier was hitting on during the whole reunion, and his main objective is just to clear his name. Richardson, known as Veep’s Richard Splett and half of Detroiters with Tim Robinson, is one of the best comic actors we have, but here he’s largely confined to the role of straight man. Aniq largely serves to set up other characters’ big laughs, with Richardson getting few of his own. The only real indication we get of The Afterparty’s endgame is a throwaway line from Danner: “We’re all stars of our own movie.”

Once the Rashomon concept gets going, the viewer sees what she means. Each episode of The Afterparty isn’t just told from a new character’s point of view; stylistically, it’s a riff on a new set of conventions. If Only Murders in the Building was about depth, drilling down on the quirks of a particular form, The Afterparty is about breadth. When Zoe’s ex-husband, Brett (Ike Barinholtz), tells his story, it’s a faux-action movie about hunting down his daughter’s stuffed animal. Yasper’s episode is a musical; Zoe’s is fully animated. There’s also a horror movie, and a 2006 period piece where all the actors play their much younger selves—sort of like if Pen15 were aged up a few years.

Every chapter in The Afterparty is, in effect, a genre exercise inside a genre exercise, or maybe a parody inside a parody. The constant reinvention makes for an easy, engaging watch; you can feel how much fun Miller is having with the sheer range of options, and the structure is inherently episodic—this is very much a show, not an extended movie. The only problem is that the murder mystery itself gets a bit lost in the sauce. You’ll be more curious what shape the show will shift into next than who killed Xavier, especially once we actually meet him via flashback. (To cherry-pick just one example of his personality, Xavier’s big love song is called “Pussy Hole.”) Nor is Aniq’s quest to win Zoe over especially compelling; she may get a token line about not being a prize, but she’s treated like one nevertheless.

Still, The Afterparty avoids the ultimate trap of the comedy-mystery—letting each side of the hyphen cancel the other out. The Woman in the House … (there’s no way I’m typing out the full title more than once) lands a few punch lines as a riff on potboiler adaptations like The Girl on the Train or The Woman in the Window. Bell’s Anna is cartoonishly bereft: Her daughter died, her husband left her, and there’s a gigantic bowl of wine corks sitting on her kitchen island. But the show also wants us to invest in whatever’s going on with her sexy new neighbor, even as it fills Anna’s voice-over with knowingly ridiculous purple prose like, “When your past is so present, how can there be a future?” Unlike Paul Feig’s A Simple Favor, which took aim at a similar set of satirical targets, The Woman in the House tries to sustain these two tones over eight full episodes, instead of just two hours. The result is the inverse of Only Murders: Neither half of the show really works out in the end.

The Afterparty, on the other hand, turns its silly side into an emotional hook. Haddish’s nosy detective is excellent even before she gets a backstory; she’s more interested in the petty gossip than the larger whodunnit, mirroring the priorities of the show. And Zoe’s animated spotlight effectively dramatizes her inner frustrations with where her life has gone, from an aspiring artist to a divorced vice principal. The Afterparty may not always emphasize the “mystery” half of the comedy-mystery hybrid, but it does center its characters.

Apple declined to share the final episode of The Afterparty with critics, so the solution to this super-sized game of Clue—perhaps the ultimate comedy-mystery, in its 1985 film version—remains something of a secret. I’m not especially curious to find out, nor do I think the success of the show rides on the answer. (The show is an unlikely candidate for Mare of Easttown–style speculation.) It’s hard, if possible, for a story like this to have it all, but The Afterparty has more than enough.