[This post originally appeared as part of Recommendation Machine, IndieWire’s daily TV picks feature.]
“Party Down” remains one of the great TV comedy balancing acts. Following a group of caterers flung to various celebrations across the greater LA area, the show managed to keep an event-of-the-week format going while focusing on each of the main individual employees that made it memorable.
With the news that the planned Starz revival of the show is officially a go, the biggest question becomes whether or not the team can get back on the tightrope after over a decade out of practice. Regardless of the answer, there are still two all-time great seasons of television that exist and are readily available now for any catchup/rewatch purposes.
There’s a specific kind of tongue-in-cheek nature to “Party Down” that starts right at the beginning. Ron (Ken Marino) looks right off camera, talking with passion about the pride he takes in his work and his team. For close to a minute, it’s easy to assume that this was the start of another workplace mockumentary to add to what was already a glut at the time (and has only grown in number since). But no, flip the camera around and you see that he’s just giving the hostess of the house party an unnecessarily hard sell, in true Ron fashion.
Over the rest of that first episode, the audience is introduced to the band of appetizer-serving misfits that make up the show’s core. Kyle (Ryan Hansen) is the air-headed aspiring leading man, perpetually caught in a simmering feud with struggling writer and hard sci-fi enthusiast Roman (Martin Starr). Henry (Adam Scott) and Casey (Lizzy Caplan) also have careers in a holding pattern, as their acting and comedy dreams are starting to fizzle out. (Jane Lynch and Megan Mullally traded seasons in the last “Party Down” wild card slot, but the announcement has both of them returning for the new six-episode run.)
There’s a subtle, persistent reminder of the time period in the original show: casual smoke breaks, flip phones, Blackberries, the odd Sarah Palin reference. But what made the show funny was never fully tied to that late-’00s malaise. It came more from the double acknowledgment of how enervating it is to try to break into any entertainment field and how the fleeting moments of happiness and clarity along the way are enough to delude you to keep going. Take a pair of the best “Party Down” episodes, the one-two Season 2 punch of “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” and “Not On Your Wife Opening Night.”
The first, with the team getting a rare chance to join in the fun when Guttenberg goes through with a party he originally canceled, is a fan favorite. There’s for sure a specific vibe that comes from having Guttenberg play himself (and from his total willingness to play along at every turn), but there’s so many other things that make that more than an expertly executed bottle episode. Roman finally takes some constructive criticism, Henry shows that he’s actually got talent, and we see another evolution in Ron’s extreme commitment to the job.
From there, the show makes a hard left turn into a perfect little self-contained farce, all playing out against a community theater backdrop. With the help of some more totally game guest stars, “Party Down” takes the show’s particular brand of misunderstanding to its inevitable high point. A backstage revolving door of mistaken identity and one very drunken Roman later, the show had itself another instant classic.
Neither of those work without an even spread among all the central “Party Down” players. There’s a dash of Ron’s nerves, a sprinkle of Kyle’s obliviousness, with Roman’s skepticism and either Constance (Lynch) or Lydia’s (Mullally) curveballs to keep everything moving forward. Through it all, even when their time together got a little tumultuous, Henry and Casey were the anchors. How the show will replace Caplan, whose obligations elsewhere are going to keep her from coming back as a series regular, is the big mystery. You almost need someone for Henry to turn to after a night of inexplicable weirdness. The moment when Henry and Casey have their first conversation in the pilot is when the show starts to lock into place.
Revivals like this are a mixed bag at best, as series co-creator Rob Thomas’ recent attempt at bringing back a beloved show helped prove. There’s also something specific about these performances that, at the time, were these alchemic things flying under the radar. Time will tell whether this new “Party Down” — with John Enborn, a writer on all the aforementioned episodes, as showrunner — will try to recapture the old magic or follow through on placing this crew in a world that looks a little different a dozen years later. Either way, the first two glorious seasons aren’t going away any time soon.
Pair It With: “Ryan Hansen Solves Crimes on Television*” is something of a spiritual descendant of “Party Down.” Made during the time of YouTube scripted originals (ah, YouTube Red), Hansen plays himself as an actor researching a role during multiple police detective ride-alongs. It has a similar winking attitude toward the process of making a TV show, with Hansen more than willing to laugh at himself in the process.