Politics

A Whodunit Whose Culprit Depends on How You Tell the Story


This article contains mild spoilers through the sixth episode of The Afterparty.

The Afterparty begins with a cinematic death. During the bash he throws to cap off his 15-year high-school reunion, Xavier, a nerd turned Justin Bieber–esque pop star, plummets from the deck of his lavish seaside mansion to the coastal rocks below. Soon, the tragedy gives way to mystery: Was Xavier (played by Dave Franco) murdered? And if so, which of his old classmates might have done the deed?

In short order, viewers meet Detective Danner (Tiffany Haddish), a cop assigned to gather preliminary statements before the assigned detective takes over. But Danner wants more than a supporting role in this tale. With the clock ticking, she decides to solve the mystery on her own. And here’s where The Afterparty, otherwise so familiar in its format, gets delightfully weird: The interviews Danner conducts work as movies in miniature—tales told from the perspective of the partygoers, in distinct genres that reflect how the characters see themselves. Suspects, through the alchemy of storytelling, become protagonists. “We’re all stars of our own movie,” Danner says, and The Afterparty makes good on that premise. As each episode unfurls, a show that began as a collection of gimmicks deepens, and its wacky comedy adopts a poignant tone. We might be the leads in our own stories. Sooner or later, though, other people’s stories will complicate the plot.

The show sets up tropes in order to tangle them—or, in some cases, to knock them down. Aniq (Sam Richardson) seems like a lovesick nerd; in the show’s first episode, he narrates the evening’s events as a rom-com and casts himself as the romantic hero. Zoë (Zoë Chao), the girl who doesn’t realize her own hotness, recounts the night through Big Mouth–style animation. Brett (Ike Barinholtz), the guy who peaked in high school, stars in a Fast and Furious–esque action movie (complete with car races, moody lighting, quick-cut camera shots, and giddy soliloquies about the importance of family). Other episodes feature stories told through a quirkily choreographed music video, a crime procedural, a noir-inflected horror, and a sitcom-style flashback to high school.

Still from Afterparty.
Zoë and Aniq’s story, told from Aniq’s perspective, is a rom-com. (Apple TV+)

The Afterparty spikes its punch with an almost dizzying number of references, among them Clue, Can’t Hardly Wait, and Poirot. But the show is most directly in dialogue with works that tap into the moment’s interest in colliding perspectives. The insights of Rashomon, that classic portrayal of multiple points of view, are resurgent in the age of social media. Shows such as The Affair and movies such as Knives Out and The Last Duel explore two ideas at once: first, that the ability to tell one’s own story is an elemental dignity; second, that people’s testimonies will often be at odds with one another. In The Afterparty, Danner, whom Haddish invests with equal parts weariness and zeal, channels the upshot of the Rashomon-style narrative: the disorientation of looking for truth among conflicting stories.

The Afterparty’s motley mix of forms tidily expresses that turmoil. The show, created and directed by Chris Miller, with his frequent collaborator, Phil Lord, executive producing, was originally conceived as a feature film. But the serial format it adopted—the show is streaming on Apple TV+—means that each episode can fully embrace its given genre, and then put them in conversation. The dreaminess of the rom-com sidles up to the grittiness of the action-heist. Zoë’s cartoon, with its apparent cheer, tells roughly the same story as the psychodrama related by the anxiety-ridden Chelsea (Ilana Glazer). The collisions are eloquent. Rom-coms and musicals and buddy comedies and crime procedurals are not merely narrative styles. They are also moral guideposts. They hold the key to timely questions: Who is worthy of audiences’ trust? Who is an unreliable narrator? How seriously should you take characters, as people? When they hurt, do you ache along with them—or are you trained, instead, to laugh at their pain?

Take Aniq. His evening features the stuff of rom-com cliché, right down to an interrupted kiss in the rain. The rom-com premise would suggest that the show is—and that the audience, by extension, should be—on his side, wanting for him what he wants for himself. The format insists that Aniq’s obsession with Zoë is nothing more than charming. “She wants to see you; you want to see her,” he tells himself, psyching himself up to win her over. “Nothing can ruin this night.”

But then, in a later episode, we get the story from Zoë’s perspective. We learn, first of all, that she is deeply ambivalent about the evening—and also, reunions encouraging the introspections they do, about the kind of person she wants to be. (Her cartoonified account renders that conflict literally, with Zoë’s animated avatar sometimes sprouting two heads, one competent, the other capricious.) We also learn how Zoë feels about Aniq’s advances. She is ambivalent about those too. She likes Aniq, but isn’t sure that she like-likes him. Her hesitance is complicated by the fact that two other men are also pursuing her at the reunion: Brett (her soon-to-be-ex-husband, who is trying to win her back after cheating on her) and Xavier (who is chasing her to retaliate against Brett, his high-school bully). Each guy has imposed his version of a rom-com on her, but Zoë sees herself as starring in an entirely different kind of story.

Still from Afterparty.
Each episode is told from the point of view of a reunion attendee, in distinct genres that reflect how the characters see themselves. (Apple TV+)

The disparity hints at Hollywood’s habit of romanticizing behavior that is better understood as predatory. But it is also a course correction. The Afterparty, in introducing Zoë through Aniq’s rom-com—and then through Brett’s family-oriented action-heist—conditions viewers to see her as the men do: as an object of affection, passive and compliant. As a manic pixie dream alum. But Zoë’s own episode makes clear how much more she is. She is weirder and more complicated and more singular than they—and we, the viewers—have ever understood. “I have a tiny, ragey side of me that comes out when I’m provoked,” the animated Zoë confesses. Later, she blooms into an enormous grizzly bear.

The show carefully calibrates shtick and insight. “Tell the story a certain way,” Zoë says to Danner, solemnly, “and any one of us could’ve done this. But tell the story in a different way, and none of us did this.” Lines like that—blatant exposition, not of plot but of premise—could easily wear thin. But just as the show starts to seem overly enamored of its conceit, it remembers its own genre: comedy. The show’s formal explorations are lightened by its revelation that, for example, Xavier’s film credits include a starring role in a Hungry Hungry Hippos adaptation. (“Those hungry, hungry hippos have lost their marbles!” goes a line that Xavier for some reason delivers in a vaguely Aussie accent.) Danner, after ruminating on her interviewees’ “mind movies,” asks Aniq to tell her more about the rom-com he’s narrating. And then the investigator turned audience member pulls a bag of popcorn out of her purse.

The Afterparty will ostensibly reveal the cause of Xavier’s death. (Seven of its eight episodes were made available to critics.) But the broader answer to its whodunit is also, in some sense, Hollywood itself. Movies shape people, the show suggests, in ways that manifest sometimes as comedy and sometimes as tragedy. They encourage dreams and they dash them, all at the same time. They hold mirrors up to life; they warp the reflections. “I’m building character arcs! Dynamics! … A’s, B’s!” one character says, as he gives his account of the murder. After Aniq shares his own version of the night’s events, Danner gives him some notes: “Wow, your third act got some problems.” And in one of the show’s most powerful moments, Aniq realizes that his story isn’t the rom-com he’s imagined. He isn’t the woozy hero of his dreams, or of Zoë’s. He’s just a boy, standing in front of a girl, asking her to hear his side of the story.



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