Party Down is a comedy that ran for two seasons on Starz before being canceled. And, goddamn, what a pair of seasons. It burned bright and bailed just before its writing or premise grew stale, giving us some fantastic character growth and hysterical jokes in just twenty episodes.
Party Down is about a catering company working in LA. Each episode depicts the team catering an event, and about half of the humor comes the ridiculous events they’re catering, half comes from the relationships and ongoing stories of the main characters.
This format made the show fertile ground for memorable guest appearances as the attendees of the events while still letting us grow attached to the main characters.
The protagonist, played by Adam Scott, is a former actor named Henry who landed one role in an iconic commercial (think the Budweiser “whasssuppp” ads), but whose career never took off afterwards.
The show picks up after Henry officially “retires” from his acting career and dejectedly, apathetically takes a job from a catering team manager, his old friend Ron.
Ron, played by Ken Marino, plays a hapless fuck-up trying to turn his life around.
Other team members include Martin Starr playing a jaded, pretentious sci-fi writer, Kyle Hansen playing a dumb but sweet pretty-boy who is in the “handsome business” (modeling, acting, singing), and Jane Lynch playing an actress who spent her career playing C-rate bit roles and burning her brain out with casual drug use.
My favorite member of Party Down Catering, though, is Lizzy Caplan as Casey Klein, a comedian in the midst of a marital and career crisis. She and Adam Scott have fantastic chemistry, lighting up the screen as they trade sarcastic barbs.
The glue of the show is the brilliant chemistry between the cast and the great comic delivery. Many of my favorite moments and jokes would probably not seem that funny out of context, but really kill in the rhythm of the show.
Party Down is also gleefully R-rated; the events they host include a porn awards ceremony and an orgy party.
The thing that keeps me coming back is the melancholy undercurrent. This is perhaps best highlighted in the excellent pilot, which has a really sharp script even if the comic rhythm of the show was still being perfected (too much Ron humiliation early on).
The pilot shows Henry, fresh off of giving up on his acting dream, working his first event with the catering team. All of his co-workers are near-break and borderline delusional: The unsuccessful aspiring actors and comedians admire the beautiful house and lavish party they’re serving. But the owner of the house is jaded about the stuck up life of a wealthy suburbanite; he mocks the trivialities of his world and admires the “authenticity” of the caterers still reaching for a dream.
Throughout the pilot, characters repeat the Repo Man quote “ordinary fucking people,” and the truth is it applies to both our main characters and the people whose party they cater. Everyone is stuck in a life of routine and unsexiness. Everyone believes someone else has it made and that they’re stuck on the less appealing path. Whether you’ve settled for plain life or are desperately struggling in search of the big time, your life is stuck in the void of “ordinary.”
Thus is the cynicism of Party Down. And I love it. It’s skeptical heart makes its moments of hope shine bright.
My favorite episodes are the ones that give the characters small moments to experience fame and greatness. And yet I know that these episodes wouldn’t work if the rest didn’t show its characters struggling.
The most entertaining of the series, by far, is the eighth episode of the first season, “Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh” in which the team serves the party of a gangster who was recently acquitted of murder. The crew is terrified until it turns out the gangster and his friends are connoisseurs of obscure media and recognize many of the catering team’s characters from their minor fame (“you saw Dingleberries?”).
Another highlight is the fifth episode of the second season, “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday,” in which the actor Steve Guttenberg (playing himself) forgets to cancel his catering after his party changes dates. When Party Down Catering shows up despite no party, he decides to celebrate with them anyways. In the party, he encourages Martin Starr’s character to test out his writing with “real” actors, and he inadvertently causes a scene of great chemistry between Lizzy Caplan and Adam Scott.
Both episodes are Party Down at its most brisk and enjoyable, highlighting its great characters and convincing us that their creative struggle might be worth it.
The first season of the show is unquestionably the superior of the two, and most of that has to do with Jane Lynch’s presence. After the first season, Lynch received her breakout role on Glee and could only appear in one episode of the second season. In the second season, she was replaced with Megan Mullally who strove admirably to fill the Lynch-sized hole, but who was never given writing (and who never demonstrated charm) that allowed her to live up Lynch’s memorable character.
One of the reasons I look so fondly back on Party Down is how wonderfully it ended. The one episode of Season 2 that Lynch appeared for was the season finale that ended up being the series finale: Lynch marries into fame in wealth, Starr gets stoned and writes his masterpiece (“The Serpent in the Mirror”), Hansen blows a chance at a big break by performing an accidentally antisemitic song, and – most memorably – Caplan and Scott grapple with the significance of her continued attempt towards fame and his apathy towards it.
Ultimately, I can’t recommend Party Down enough… but I also recognize that it fits my taste and comic sensibility pretty much perfectly. It’s an immensely entertaining show from start to finish, filled with a cast that has an incredible chemistry and a sarcastic sense of humor. Every time I watch it, I’m sad when it’s over, but I’m always glad that I was able to experience it.
You’re damn right we’re having fun.