Last weekend, my seven-year-old daughter attended a classmate’s birthday. She played online games for an hour, then dressed for freezing weather and walked a few blocks to the birthday boy’s stoop to present a gift, collect a cupcake and chat a bit, masked. In sum: Ain’t no party like a 2021 party. The cupcake, I am reliably informed, was delicious.
Restrictions on large and even medium-size events make this a good and poignant time to watch “Party Down,” a cynical, snappy sitcom that ran for two seasons on Starz, from 2009-2010, and is now available to stream on Hulu. Created by John Enbom, Dan Etheridge, Paul Rudd and Rob Thomas (the “Veronica Mars” Thomas, not the Matchbox Twenty Thomas), it follows a less than competent team of Los Angeles cater-waiters as they hump cases of wine and cheese trays from one semi-elite soiree to the next.
Everyone on the Party Down crew has Hollywood dreams — acting, screenwriting, managing a nearby branch of Soup ’R Crackers, “The fastest-growing nonpoultry, noncoffee franchise in all of Southern California,” Ken Marino’s team leader Ron explains. Instead, they spend their days passing hors d’oeuvres and collecting used stemware, serving the people whose lives they think they want. That those lives seem awful — with the notable exception of Steve Guttenberg’s, which looks amazing — is part of the corrosive fun.
The “Party Down” actors were all pretty much midcareer when they joined. Some had better jobs ahead, some didn’t. The series kept losing actors to other shows, first Jane Lynch to “Glee,” then Adam Scott to “Parks and Recreation,” which may explain its early cancellation. Then again, the terrible Nielsen numbers didn’t help. For a while, there was talk of a movie. Talk stopped. Rumors of a reunion surfaced in 2019, then fizzled, appropriate for a show about people who can’t quite get it together.
It makes you wonder what the characters would be doing now, in a time of no catering. Probably not a lot. Here are three reasons to watch.
An ensemble comedy, “Party Down” mustered an impeccable cast: Marino as Ron, a former addict; Scott as Henry, a failed actor best known for a beer commercial; Lizzy Caplan as Casey, an aspirant comic; Ryan Hansen as Kyle, a himbo comfortable with the casting couch; Martin Starr as Roman, a would-be screenwriter; and Lynch as Constance, a one-time D-lister and good-time girl. After Lynch left for “Glee,” Jennifer Coolidge replaced her, then Megan Mullally, which speaks to a deep bench, all wearing the same stupid pink bow ties.
A lot of the “Veronica Mars” cast members make cameos, as do Marino’s old sketch comedy buddies. Indelible guest stars include J.K. Simmons as an exceptionally foul-mouthed producer, Molly Parker as Ron’s uptight former classmate, Ed Begley Jr. as a randy retiree. George Takei shows up just to be poisoned with shellfish in the Season 1 finale. Guttenberg spends an entire episode playing a loose version of himself, offering valuable life lessons while hitting on Kyle’s scene study partner and hot-tubbing in the nude. Here’s one for your cameo bingo card: A pre-scandal Stormy Daniels appears in “Sin Say Shun Awards After Party.”
This cast is, you may have noticed, unbearably white. That’s mostly an ugly oversight. But it does hint that working a survival job while bemoaning your bottom-feeder place in the Hollywood terrarium is its own kind of privilege.
Here’s the structural genius of “Party Down.” It has the DNA of a workplace comedy in that it brings together people who would never know each other otherwise. But it’s also a hangout comedy in that the waiters work as little as possible. Because each episode takes place at a different party, it avoids the stasis, visual and otherwise, that workplace comedies induce. In just 20-odd minutes, the writers create an entire small world. Then move to the next.
But even as the birthdays, weddings and after parties deliver variety — and the “Sin Say Shun,” “Pepper McMasters Singles Seminar,” “Nick DiCintio’s Orgy Night” and “Joel Munt’s Big Deal Party” episodes deliver the boobs that premium cable somehow finds essential — there’s a tonal sameness to the fetes. Few of them seem like much fun. Mostly they’re an opportunity for the hosts and attendees to reflect on the emptiness of their lives, poolside. So there’s the comfort: Maybe parties were actually bad?
Each weak brings a new catastrophe — accidentally-on-purpose burning an American flag, seducing the wrong guest, poisoning Takei. But at the bottom of its highball glass, “Party Down” is a show about the existential problem of whether making an effort is worth it. “No risk, no reward,” Casey chirps in Guttenberg’s Jacuzzi.
“Well, I have a saying,” Henry answers her. “No risk, no risk.”
The series puts forward and then undercuts two irreconcilable ideas: that you should, on the one hand, pursue your dreams, and on the other, live in the moment, being decent to the people around you. Given its barbed view of the entertainment industry and the systems that support it, the show suggests that each is mostly a losing game. Kyle finally lands a major role, and the movie goes straight to DVD. In Asia. Casey books a scene in a Judd Apatow comedy. Then learns that the scene was cut.
But when your job involves serving pigs in blankets purposefully shaped like male genitalia, caring is obviously dumb. And giving up isn’t a good look either. So ultimately, this is a show about the unsettled question of how to live, one appetizer platter at a time.
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