There are no bad episodes of Party Down.
In two seasons of ten episodes each, Party Down — one of my favorite shows of all time — landed a hit with each half hour. The blend of darkness with warmth, fast-paced scripts filled with raunch, fantastic relationships between characters, and great guest stars almost every episode makes Party Down an immensely watchable gem from start to finish.
That said, some episodes work better than other episodes. Now that I’ve seen the show three times through (plus the occasional rerun), I have a pretty good handle on which episodes I think are highlights and which ones are merely medium-lights. (Again, Party Down has no lowlights.)
I wouldn’t begrudge any fans having a different ranking from me; perhaps there are some stories or guest stars who connect better with you than with me. But below is my ranking of Party Down‘s twenty episodes.
20. Party Down Company Picnic (S02E07)
“Party Down Company Picnic” is an episode that I always think should be a more entertaining than it actually is. The idea of an “inverse” episode — Party Down as the hosts rather than the caterers — had been perfected just two episodes earlier in the season, which diminished the impact of this outing.
Instead of giving the regulars a chance to just hang out together, the episode is saddled with three relatively cumbersome plots that require minimal interaction between the main crew: Casey competes with guest Nat Faxon (of The Way Way Back) in picnic events, Henry tries to break up with Uda (Kristen Bell), and Ron tries to win the favor of the new company owner.
There are some nice moments here. Faxon goes all-in in his take as man-child Garlan, and Bell steals every damn scene she’s in. But this half-hour lacks the impact of the show’s better outings.
19. Brandix Corporate Retreat (S01E07)
A down point from the otherwise flawless stretch that makes up the middle of the show’s first season, “Brandix Corporate Retreat” never quite builds to the show’s usual hilarious heights. Instead, the episode gets bogged down in romantic jealousy drama. Roman’s crush on Casey never worked as a plot thread, and even Henry and Casey’s bickering about Rick Fox feels like a bit of a downer here.
But enough of the jokes land that the episode is still eminently watchable: Roman’s rant about how Rick Fox shouldn’t be a star is hilarious, as is Kyle’s hypothesizing about how well-hung Fox probably is. The episode also gives us some important development in the relationship between Henry and Casey, which would pay off in the next few episodes, while the downer ending of Henry’s job offer is thematically brilliant.
18. Cole Landry’s Draft Day Party (S02E09)
The premise of the episode is solid — closeted gay college quarterback hosts a disastrous party on the day of the NFL Draft — allowing for some great jokes at the expense of sports fans. (It also feels prescient of the Michael Sam story a couple years later.)
But the plots are all retreads of stories done better earlier in the show: Henry is jealous about Casey; Lydia struggles to seduce a party guest; Ron has penis problems. My favorite thread of the episode is Daniel Franzese as an athlete that subverts all of Roman’s stereotypes about dumb jocks. But then, Roman strories are always the best stories, so that shouldn’t be much of a surprise.
17. Tennheiser-Pong Wedding Reception (S01E10)
Jane Lynch became a breakout star on Glee during Party Down‘s first season, forcing her to leave after eight episodes. Before Meagan Mullally became Lynch’s full-time replacement as Lydia during the second season, Jennifer Coolidge stepped in as Bobbie. She had to work with parts that seem to be written for Lynch, so you can’t really blame her, but I find her to be a major distraction. She gets some laugh, but she’s overall a more annoying presence than any of the regulars. It’s less of a problem in the first of her two appearances, but her major role in the Season 1 finale feels disruptive.
“Tennheiser-Pong Wedding Reception” has some great moments, including a turn by Kristen Bell as the over-serious leader of a competing catering agency, a hilarious-cringey encounter between Roman and George Takei, and a painfully abrupt breakup between Casey and Henry. Still, I find it to be a slight disappointment as a finale for the brilliant first season.
16. Nick DiCintio’s Orgy Night (S02E03)
Party Down does raunch well, but the standouts of this dirty episode are the asides: Henry dealing with Uda’s uptight, judgmental attitude, Ron acting all mopey about his awful ex-girlfriend, and Kyle’s crisis of confidence in his acting ability. Thomas Lennon plays the orgy-hosting creep perfectly, and any episode that requires Roman to pretend like he knows what he’s talking about (especially re: women) is hilarious.
Other parts fail to connect. Lydia’s hitting on Nick is a miss for me, and the general “orgy” party just lacks the energy of the show’s better gatherings… though I guess that’s kind of the point of a story about a failed orgy.
15. California College Conservative Union Caucus (S01E02)
I know a lot of people can’t stand Josh Gad, but damn if he isn’t fantastic in Party Down‘s second episode as an ambitious, no-nonsense college student. He and Ken Marino have brilliant chemistry all episode long. Jane Lynch is also a highlight this episode, with an astoundingly perfect delivery of the line “and since when is Toronto not a part of the United States of America!?”
But in all, it’s obvious the show was still finding its footing. The script isn’t quite as sharp as those from the ensuing episodes, and a requisite story climaxing with Ron humiliating himself already feels formulaic just two episodes in. It’s a good episode with some great moments, retaining the dark edge from the pilot, but it’s far from the show’s best.
14. Precious Lights Pre-School Auction (S02E02)
The best part of “Auction” is the fringes: JK Simmons reprising his guest role as a profane film producer, Ron and Lydia’s pantomimed sex (and everyone’s response to it), Henry’s decision to put out the tip jar backfiring, and Roman trying to sweet-talk his team members he usually berates so he can get money to bid on a comic book.
The main plot of an auction for snobby parents benefitting a preschool is a bit dull, but I have trouble caring when the script is so sharp. My favorite scene of the episode — and one of my favorites of the series — is Roman’s rant to Kyle (“fucking can’t-act creature from the no-talent lagoon”), followed by Kyle “acting” at Roman to make him feel guilty (“you just took the masta class!”).
13. Jackal Onassis Backstage Party (S02E01)
The second season debut has a lot of catch-up to do, and that’s part of the reason it’s so fun: It reintroduces all of the characters, recalibrating their relationships for the new season. Henry is now the team leader, his lazy, defeated attitude clashing with his new responsibility. Meanwhile, Ron and Casey end up back on the team, each having left the company for some more ambitious project but returning on awkward terms.
Jimmi Simpson as eccentric rock star Jackal Onassis brings a fantastic energy to the episode. His absurd glorification of people amidst an ordinary struggle is a kind of meta-moment, as Party Down itself explores and honors the various struggles of the aspiring entertainer.
12. Joel Munt’s Big Deal Party (S02E08)
As a rule of thumb, Roman-focused stories work well. “Big Deal Party” is no exception; Roman’s rivalry with Joel Munt (played by The League‘s Paul Scheer) is a massive source of entertainment. Munt shows us what Roman could be if he got just one break, and the result is wonderfully douchey and annoying. (I’m also in on anything Gruber Allen is a part of; his portrayal of a famous sci-fi author is aces.)
There’s plenty of good stuff with the other characters, too: Henry and Casey get to struggle to be together, Ron introduces a ridiculous rule system, and Lydia gets perhaps her most entertaining story of the show’s run: She accidentally ingests some cocaine and goes a bit off the rails.
11. Investors Dinner (S01E04)
“Investors Dinner” is a fairly early glimmer of the heights the show would reach. At this point, the show had finally found its comic voice, the characters had really started developing, the thematic skewering of struggling actors is whip-smart, and the episode is filled with great scenes.
The episode concerns with a mysterious investor played by Daran Norris (aka Gordy in Ned’s) who hosts a party for rich, like-minded folks. With everything happening with the main crew — Henry and Casey sorting out their feelings, Kyle making a rich friend, a fantastic runner about a prop gun, etc. — the dinner itself is a side note, but an amusing (if slightly implausible one).
10. Not On Your Wife Opening Night (S02E06)
The episode’s main plot is a little but ridiculous, but it’s obviously intentional: The crew is catering the debut of a local play called Not on Your Wife, and the episode unfolds as just much of a farce as the play — there are mistaken identities, miscommunications, and ridiculous twists.
The episode’s background stories are strong, too, especially Roman enjoying the affection of two expressive actors from the play when he reveals he’s a writer. If every episode of Party Down was this wacky, the show wouldn’t work, but “Opening Night” is an amusing change from the norm.
9. James Rolf High School Twentieth Reunion (S01E09)
Ron’s dramatic arc on the show rarely has a strong impact, thus episodes where he has a prominent role are infrequently the show’s strongest; he works best as a punching bag off to the side.
The major exception to this is “Twentieth Reunion,” in which Ron caters his own high school reunion in an attempt to prove to his high school class that he’s turned his life around and become a leader. Needless to say, it goes poorly, but the episode wrings a surprising amount of comedy and sadness out of the premise. Joe Lo Truglio hilariously appears as Ron’s burnout ex-best friend.
Henry’s B-plot of deciding whether to move back in with his parents never quite clicks (despite a great scene where Casey uses Lo Truglio to prove how pathetic Henry’s idea is), but Ron’s thread is so strong I barely care.
8. James Ellison Funeral (S02E04)
This episode is bumped up a few spots in my ranking because it has one of the show’s funniest ever B-plots, Kyle learning the blues from a “wise” black man he meets at the funeral they’re catering. (“Ain’t got no belt!”)
The other threads are solid, too: Ron faces his mortality, Henry tries to prevent the dead man’s ex-mistress from ruining the funeral, and Roman says some really insensitive shit. It all adds up to one of the second season’s better outings.
7. Willow Canyon Homeowners Annual Party (S01E01)
I really love Party Down‘s pilot. Even if the comic voice hadn’t quite developed — the episode leans too heavily on Ron humiliating himself, and, aside from a few scenes, the scipt isn’t quite as crackling as it would be a couple episodes later — the pilot nails the characters and the thematic backbone of the show. This is a dark, funny, polished episode comparing how the rich and the struggling each often glamorize the other, when they’re both “ordinary fucking people.”
There are plenty of clever and funny moments here, too: The entire thread of the Party Down crew’s “crisp white shirts” is great, Enrico Colantoni is brilliant as a frustrated, wealthy suburban dad, and Kyle is funny no matter how many times I watch the episode. But mainly, the pilot succeeds for giving us a great introduction to the characters and world of Party Down.
6. Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen (S01E06)
“Sweet Sixteen” offers almost an embarrassment of riches. It starts with the opening shot: We meet JK Simmons as a foul-mouthed, short-tempered film producer. He’s throwing an extravagant party for his sixteen year-old daugher, Taylor (played by Mindy Crenshaw), but none of the guests have shown up.
Thus, it’s up to the Party Down crew to try and make the party special. Casey tries to convince Taylor that the few guests who showed up are her real friends, while Constance completely misses the point and encourages Taylor to try and win back the popular kids who didn’t show. Ron, meanwhile, has a conversation with the rapper who was hired as entertainment. Kyle tries to hook up with Taylor’s step-mom, but he just got his teeth bleached and it really hurts. And — the episode’s darkest and best thread — Henry bumps into an old friend and finds himself on the brink of that big break all actors need.
This is just a great, classic episode of prime Party Down, with everything clicking — guest stars, funny stories for its leads, great script, and a reminder of the show’s dark, sad premise of struggling actors failing to ever make it big.
(Trust me that the clip below is even funnier when uncensored.)
5. Sin Say Shun Awards Afterparty (S01E05)
By appearing on Starz — which is basically a third-rate HBO — Party Down would occasionally go for some heavy R-rated episodes: Nudity, profanity, drugs, etc. (No on-screen violence of note, though.)
Probably the most memorable outing of Party Down taking full advantage of this freedom is its excellent fifth episode, “Sin Say Shun Awards Afterparty.” The crew caters the afterparty of a porn awards show (think the AVN Awards), and chaos ensues: Casey takes ecstasy (and Henry tries to find a hit for himself), Kyle hits it off with some porn stars, and Roman doesn’t hit it off with some porn stars.
But the funniest thread from the episode is a porn producer noticing that Ron has a very large penis while they’re both in the bathroom. The producer tries to talk him into shooting a video, and it unfolds about as horribly as it could even though Ron has stumbled into what many horny guys would consider a dream come true. It’s hysterical and cringe-inducing.
4. Constance Carmell Wedding (S02E10)
The first season of Party Down ended on a dark note: Ron combusting, Casey abruptly departing, and all the regulars stuck in neutral. It provided a realistic, if downbeat, potential sendoff for the characters we’d come to love over ten episodes. When the show was renewed for a second season, it gave the writers a second chance to explore the characters.
By the time the second season ended, the show’s odds of renewal were looking more and more grim. Not only had the show failed to gain more viewers or cultural cachet during year 2, but star Adam Scott agreed to become a regular on Parks and Recreation after Starz continued to postpone its renew/cancel decision. Finally the word came: Party Down was canceled. Alas.
That meant “Constance Carmell Wedding” was not only a season finale, but a series finale, and it’s an immensely satisfying conclusion for almost all of the characters, often funny and bizarre. Roman gets high and writes his masterpiece (The Serpent in the Mirror); Casey gets cut from her Apatow movie which sends her into a crisis that Henry halts when he decides that he’ll start working on his career again; Ron and Lydia find people just as broken as them to share their lives with; and Constance marries a film producer. (Alas, only Kyle, whose plot involves his band singing an accidentally racist song seems to miss some new direction in his life.)
Filled with hilarious and dark moments, plus a perfect Lizzy Caplan/Adam Scott moment to cap the episode, “Wedding” is basically everything I hoped Party Down would escalate to. It’s a borderline perfect ending to a borderline perfect show.
3. Pepper McMasters Singles Seminar (S01E03)
The first great Party Down episode, “Singles Seminar” is the moment that Party Down figured out what it really meant to be Party Down: The characters hit their groove, developing in interesting ways; the jokes hit fantastic heights; the cast hit the delivery out of the park (especially Jane Lynch); and it all revolved around a wonderfully insane event: a dating seminar for seniors.
Ed Begley, Jr. appears as Constance’s ex-lover, and he has instant chemistry with the cast (it’s too bad he couldn’t reappear later in the series). Casey faces down with her husband, Roman and Kyle continue their feud from the opening episodes, and Ron gets caught up trying to keep his team and the event under control.
Your mileage for this episode may vary depending on your appreciation of Lynch; it’s her most central episode of the series, as she faces her transition into middle age. Personally, I think she’s the funniest member of the cast, and her gleeful (pun intended) portrayal of Constance makes this episode one of the show’s very best.
2. Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday (S02E05)
Here we are to the top two. They have a lot in common: Both depict the catering crew becoming the stars of the party rather than the catering hosts, giving the characters a glimpse of the celebrity that they’re all struggling to find. Both give the characters plenty of chance to play off each other. And both are a little bit insane and silly, even for this show.
I’ve flipped back and forth between which one to rank #1, but after seeing both several times, I currently have “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” at #2. After actor Steven Guttenberg (playing an exaggerated version of himself) forgets to cancel the catering after a called-off birthday party, he offers to host the crew in a party with the food he’s already paid for.
There’s much to love in this half hour. My favorite thread is Roman and his writing partner (played by McLovin) testing out a scene that the crew members act out. Casey and Henry rekindle their romance, Lydia prepares herself for the celebrity life, and everybody just has a damn good time. It’s fun to watch the characters enjoy themselves — especially as they act out Roman’s script — and it’s fun to watch The Gutte’s energy light up the episode. (See Sepinwall’s review of the episode for some context about why his appearance is so perfect.)
1. Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh (S01E08)
Few half hours of TV are as funny as this. Some vaguely Russian guys throw a party to celebrate some achievement of the host’s. The characters gradually realize that everyone at the party is a gangster… and they all apparently obsess over the trashy culture that the Party Down crew has created over the years.
Thus, all the caterers get sucked into the party. Well, almost all of them: Ron is stuck doing everyone else’s work, while Roman is threatened into giving notes on Ricky Sargulesh’s script. (I’m not sure I’ve ever laughed harder than at Martin Starr narrating the awful, fake dialogue.)
I often praise the fact that Party Down is a realistic portrayal of trying to succeed in show business — often darkly so. And yet, my favorite episode is one where the characters all get a chance to succeed. Maybe I’m just a sentimental schmuck, or maybe all of the darkness leading up to this episode makes this brief flash of indulgence for the characters all the more fun. Regardless, I’ll be celebrating Ricky Sargulesh for a long time to come.