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Killing in the name of... comedy

We are seeing a rash of comedies featuring corpses. The Afterparty might be the best of the new murder-comedies

Sam Richardson and (right) Ben Shwartz in a still from ‘The Afterparty’
Sam Richardson and (right) Ben Shwartz in a still from ‘The Afterparty’

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When I think of funny murderers, the one who unfailingly springs to mind is Tinnu Anand in Singeetam Srinivasa Rao’s immortal 1987 film, Pushpak. In that dialogue-less classic (streaming on Amazon Prime video), Anand plays an assassin who stabs his victims with meticulously pointy icicles so that after they die, the murder weapon simply melts away. It is an elegantly daft idea, pure comic-book, and I love it enormously.

The murder-comedy isn’t new but thanks to Rian Johnson’s Knives Out—a hilarious Agatha Christie style whodunit Netflix is turning into a multistarrer franchise— and last year’s Hulu hit, Only Murders In The Building, we are seeing a rash of comedies featuring corpses. The genre—known in publishing as “cosy crime”—is the flavour of the season. Two months into 2022 and we have had Murderville and The Woman In The House Across The Street From The Girl In The Window on Netflix, and The Afterparty on Apple TV+. All feature outlandish premises, a steady stream of sight gags, and far more puns than Dame Christie would have permitted.

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The Woman In The House Across The Street From The Girl In The Window is a spoof that keeps a straight face for so long it forgets what it was supposed to be. Kristen Bell plays a painter-turned-wino who sits by her window, ogling her single neighbour. An obvious parody—complete with aphoristic voiceovers and a little girl’s grave with a different epitaph each time—the show never gets its tone right.

I found only one really good running gag: The books kept near the protagonist’s canvas are titled “You Too Can Be An Artist”, “You Also Can Be An Artist” and “Anyone Can Be An Artist”. Later, when fixing a sofa, the book next to her is called “You Too Can Be A Reupholsterer”, and so on. Bell is in fine form but wasted in this mediocre show, whose creators should not have believed Anyone Can Be A Satirist.

Murderville has potential. Based on BBC comedy Murder In Successville, it features Will Arnett as a grizzled cop solving murders with a different celebrity sidekick in each episode. The celebrities (who range from Conan O’Brien to Sharon Stone) aren’t in on the mystery or the script, and have to improvise along and “solve the crime”.

It’s a pleasant idea—like watching someone get through an escape-room—but doesn’t warrant half-hour episodes. Conan “cracking a case” would be fine as a talk-show segment or YouTube clip. There is little cleverness on display, despite Arnett’s hammy detective. The guests don’t embrace the lunacy. Compare these to the Murder In Successville episode featuring Richard Osman (available on YouTube) and you realise the US version should have gone for really sharp, improvisatory comedians as guests, people who don’t need scripted lines to be witty.

It is with The Afterparty that the game feels afoot. Created by Christopher Miller, the show is legitimately both a comedy and a mystery, and is plotted tightly—and puzzlingly—enough to reward rewatches and theorising. On the night of a high school reunion, a popstar is found dead, and as the investigator grills the suspects, each account of the night is presented as a different movie genre: The jock imagines the night as an action movie, the alcoholic sees things as a Fincher-ian thriller, and so forth.

Miller casts a murderer’s row of comics: Sam Richardson, Ike Barinholtz, Jamie Demetriou, Ilana Glazer are all suspects, while Dave Franco plays the murdered Xavier as a popstar so smitten with himself that the actor may well be channelling his elder brother. Tiffany Haddish investigates—announcing first that she wants to see everyone’s mind-movie—and the breakout star (and breakout suspect) is Ben Schwartz, living his life as a musical and raising the show’s comedic profile by several octaves.

In a silly (but surprisingly accurate) song about second chances, Schwartz sings, “Your first band The Quarrymen doesn’t move the needle, form a second band and call it the fucking Beatles.” Some episodes and genres work better than others, but Schwartz is consistently the MVP, papering over patchy episodes and coincidences with staggering comedic enthusiasm. Richardson, playing a lovelorn escape-room creator and the likeliest suspect, is delightful alongside him and I would love to see the actor from Veep and Ted Lasso in many a romcom, please.

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The Afterparty should have been released in one go. The clues build atop one another and it’s hard to sustain the mystery element with a week between episodes, primarily because the series is also a goof. Only Murders In The Building pulled it off, but all the moving pieces in The Afterparty are funny, unlike Only Murders, where three amusingly unmatched people solved what always felt like a real crime. That would also mean I would know whether Miller and his crew stick the landing in the forthcoming finale—instead of hoping they do.

“Get the cornstarch,” says Tiffany Haddish, exasperated by the high-school pettiness carried over from decades ago. “The plot thickens.”

Indeed it does, though with mixed results. One thing I can say with certainty is that nobody has yet made an investigative-comedy series quite as brilliantly as American Vandal, which gave us two intricately plotted and revelatory seasons before being cancelled by Netflix. Now that’s a knife in the back.

Streaming tip of the week:

Rian Johnson’s Knives Out is streaming in India on Lionsgate Play. The star-studded whodunnit features Chris Evans, Ana De Armas, Michael Shannon, Jamie Lee Curtis, Christopher Plummer and, in his most memorable role, Daniel Craig as detective Benoit Blanc. It’s essential viewing, and I spoke to Johnson for Lounge when the film came out. 

Raja Sen is a film critic and the author of ‘The Best Baker In The World’ (2017), a children’s adaptation of 'The Godfather'.

@rajasen

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