I first encountered Zach Woods nearly a decade ago, on the brilliant comedy Silicon Valley (now streaming in India on JioCinema), where, playing a business adviser named Donald—but derisively called “Jared” by everyone around him—he created a mould. Woods started playing variations on the same theme, that of the gangly misfit unschooled in social cues. These were endlessly funny variations, as the gifted actor can be both fantastically cringeworthy and disarmingly earnest. Yet it took a while to break past the persona he had perfected. First came the fantastic Avenue 5, which gave us a taste of Woods being marvellously malevolent, and now he has gone one better: He plays a Regency hero.
Briefly, at least.
In The Afterparty (Apple TV+), Woods plays Edgar, an old-money billionaire investing heavily in cryptocurrency but—seen from the eyes of his antique-store owner fiancée Grace (a delightful Poppy Liu)—he is straight out of the pages of a Jane Austen novel, a tailcoat-wearing suitor sweeping the heroine off her feet. In this murder-mystery comedy created by Christopher Miller, somebody dies—from among an all-star ensemble of comedians—and everyone is a suspect, and while attempting to clear their name, they each narrate their version of events in the style of a different movie genre. Someone sees their life as a high school comedy, someone is a horror film. It takes all genres to make a world.
It’s a delicious premise, and Miller—who, along with partner Phil Lord, co-directed 21 Jump Street, The Lego Movie and Spider-Man: Into The Spider-Verse—assembled a great cast. Yet the first season, which was about a fatal high-school reunion, wasn’t plotted challengingly or rewardingly enough. The cast conjured the odd spark—Ben Schwartz was unforgettable as an overenthusiastic ska musician—yet the show itself, unlike the butlers typical to the genre, never quite did it.
These teething troubles are left behind in the sharp new season set around the night of a wedding. With this second season, The Afterparty becomes wittier and smarter than the second installments of murder-comedy hits Knives Out and Only Murders In The Building.
After first dances are performed and champagne is sabered, one from the wedding party does not awake the next morning. Everyone is a suspect, but, because the police is not yet on the scene, the task is left to escape-room designer Aniq (Sam Richardson), whom we had seen in the first season, clearing his name and solving the murder alongside police detective Danner (Tiffany Haddish). Danner indulges these Rashomon-style narrations from her suspects, asking for their “mind-movies” and noting the details and the shortcomings.
In the style of classic movie send-ups Clue and Murder By Death, The Afterparty doesn’t take murder all that seriously, and there’s a truly ridiculous line around every corner. The Mona Lisa, for instance, is described as “a middling portrait of a woman who’s a 6, at best”. Then there’s the physical comedy, led here by Paul Walter Hauser as Travis, a Reddit conspiracy theorist who impulsively joins unconnected dots while occasionally delivering first-rate slapstick: Getting to his feet after falling off a deckchair, he accidentally tucks his necktie into his hat. Superb. Naturally, his recollections make for a hard-boiled black and white noir film where he says things like, “I was caught phone-handed.”
The episodes are beautifully shot. Hannah, directed by Anu Valia, looks like a Wes Anderson film, but intelligently outdoes the ubiquitous Instagram memes mocking the director’s aesthetic. Instead it pays affectionate, knowing tribute. Yes, there may well be an upright turntable playing a vinyl of Belle and Sebastian, but there is cleverness beyond quirk, as when Edgar’s sister—played by Anna Konkle channelling her inner Margot Tannenbaum—swaps “yelling” for “intensely whispering” while telling her story. Then we see her reading an Oliver Sacks hardback in the bathtub. Perfect.
The ensemble is dynamite. John Cho plays Ulysses, an adventurer who dances to Careless Whisper in the rain and appears to have done a bit of everything, everywhere. Ken Jeong is Feng, a seller of shaved-ice, with a vendetta against his brother and an ambition to create ice shards so thin they will melt as they touch the lips… like water. Poppy Liu, as the bride and primary suspect, has a blast going from romantic to lovelorn to opportunistic, the Hacks actor shapeshifting with wonderful unpredictability.
That constant metamorphosis is this show’s big reveal. Watching these actors go from genre to genre is not only funny—though I may never stop giggling at posh British comic Jack Whitehall pulling an Amerrrrrican accent—but lets them fly in improbable, beautiful directions. It’s special to watch someone like Hauser, such a goof in Cruella (Disney+ Hotstar) and so frighteningly good as a serial killer in Black Bird (Apple TV+), play so many flavours of silly. Comedians often get straitjacketed into easily labelled personas, and The Afterparty reminds us what masters of comic timing can do. Zach Woods, for instance, could legitimately be the leading man in the next season of Bridgerton. The thing about the joker is that it can be any card.
One of the finest corpse-riddled comedies is Shane Black’s Kiss Kiss Bang Bang (available to rent on Amazon, YouTube and Google) where Robert Downey Jr plays a criminal pretending to be an actor while Val Kilmer stars as a detective who coaches actors. It’s a riot, and, for me, it’s RDJ’s best.