A career peak for Robyn Malcolm arrives in a brave and original drama that will deservedly screen around the world.
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It’s not true that there is a house style to New Zealand television drama, but there are some threads that show up quite often. There’s the fusion of high stakes with comic elements, well-executed in previous Robyn Malcolm projects like Outrageous Fortune and Far North from earlier this year. This is likely both a natural outflow of the material and an attempt at going broad, understandable in a small market like ours. Less forgivable is a tendency toward caricature, roles reduced to heroes and villains – a pernicious issue that infects plotting and scripts and flows out into performances that leave our fine actors grasping like the soap stars they once were.
Neither is remotely present in After the Party, a six-part drama debuting on TVNZ that explores the lingering, crazy-making aftermath of a boozy party, featuring characters all on a spectrum between fallible and broken. It’s so tightly wound it barely takes a moment to blink, much less wink. I’ve seen the first three episodes and have no idea where they’re heading with this thing – it’s gritty, wrenching and highly confronting.
It stars Malcolm in what may prove a career-peak role, playing Penny, a teacher and grandmother who bikes everywhere through Wellington’s hills and wind. In school she’s in complete control as she coaches basketball, and has seen every scenario before: sanguine and pragmatic about issues from porn to truancy. Outside though, she’s struggling – her relationship with her daughter is shaky, and worse still with her mother. She models for life drawing and commits well-intentioned acts of activist vandalism. She’s a person we’ve all known, or maybe even recognise a little in ourselves: that type who can’t go along to get along, who picks and picks and presses until they alienate even those closest to them.
The catalysing event for a spiral into an array of poor decisions is the return of her ex. Phil is played by Scottish legend Peter Mullan, who radiates care and bonhomie while also hinting at an irresistible force beneath the surface. He’s been away five years after the brilliant, awful night alluded to in the show’s title and to which we return in flashbacks throughout. It’s a house party and the air is electric. It’s the kind of loose which is thrilling, but also leaves the door open for bad things. There are two generations getting out of it together, with the older group joined by a clutch of young friends of Penny and Phil’s daughter Grace, played with subtlety and power by newcomer Tara Canton.
The adults are doing shots, but so are the teens, and one, Ollie, gets into a state of semi-comatose nausea, vomiting all over himself. Later, Penny sees something appalling, something that changes the course of every life in the house. Only, what did she see? “Whatever you saw, it wasn’t that,” says Penny’s mother, knifing her in front of a roomful of their friends. “You’re making a fool out of yourself.”
This ambiguity is what the whole show pivots around. Penny can’t let it go, the community just wants to move on. Phil’s return dredges all this unresolved tension to seethe at the surface. Penny’s possessed by this knowledge, breaching friendships and boundaries and the law. You see the way this terrible knowledge eats her alive, burning through whatever vestigial relationships have survived her obsession to this point.
The show is striking. It’s beautifully shot across a large array of exteriors and interiors in a way that conjures a suburban village familiar to any New Zealander and that will authentically resonate beyond (it’s scheduled to play on ABC and ITV not long after its New Zealand premiere). The plot is almost too determined to keep the viewer guessing – at its midpoint we’re no closer to having a bead on what really happened that night. We might never, and that’s a good thing – but it’s also true that the fealty to realism also means the show drags a little at times.
The understated script draws stellar performances out, with Ian Blackburn (Ollie) and Dean O’Gorman (Penny’s too-solid friend Simon) particularly noteworthy. There’s also something modern and highly impressive about a crime drama without a cop in sight. This is just people, figuring it out among themselves, the way so much of life is really litigated.
It also subtly presses against recent trends in NZ On Air-funded series, in a way I want to carefully commend. The cast is largely Pākehā, and a character describes a restaurant as “gay”. I am not, to be clear, suggesting that this is good in and of itself. The push toward greater representation and consciousness of bias in New Zealand productions is manifestly excellent and essential. Yet at times the fact such a large number of our screen communities are perfectly racially blended and confident in their reo can make a show feel like it’s less about reflecting the messy reality of our society than an aspirational window into what we’d like it to be.
To be clear, this is not an argument in favour of more segregated shows – just that diversity and inclusion can be achieved across a slate, rather than being identically expressed within each individual production. The casting and language feels of a piece with every other aspect of After the Party, which ladders up to a drive for raw authenticity wherever possible. What has gone into making this production leap out from the crowd? Not to denigrate the brilliant work, but it might also be something as basic as the budget. After the Party came from a perfect storm of extra funding that emerged post-Covid, which might also explain why it’s got such strong international distribution.
Anyone who watches it will understand why. It’s a dark, tense and highly provocative drama which will rattle uneasily around your mind for days. Malcolm’s Penny is an absolute marvel, a middle-aged woman the likes of which I’ve never seen on screen before, boiling, relentless and dangerous to know. Does she refuse to look away from an ordinary household horror? Or can she not admit that her own behaviour caused this wreck? After the Party is in no hurry to reveal its awful secrets, and that makes it the most powerful TV drama we’ve created in years.
After the Party premieres on TVNZ 1 and TVNZ+ on Sunday October 29.