Party Down: a US sitcom that richly deserves your time

Hollywood-set comedy Party Down ran for two great seasons, with a cast including Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan, Jane Lynch and more…

David Brent-isms. “The Gareth” (a haircut inversely as popular with the viewing public as “The Rachel”). Making us well up at the mere mention of Only You by Yazoo. Martin Freeman’s face.

Ricky Gervais and Stephen Merchant’s The Office gave us so much, not least its intermittently excellent US remake and the many other sitcoms it inspired. Its hand-held single camera style and wryly observed mundanity became so seminal that for a period in 2009, it was technically illegal to launch a new US sitcom that didn’t emulate them.

Thus arrived Modern Family and Parks And Recreation, two shows filmed in the mockumentary style for no discernible reason besides a love of The Office and its US remake. (Parks And Rec grew out of NBC originally hiring creators Greg Daniels and Michael Schur to make an official The Office: An American Workplace spin-off).

Those weren’t the only US comedies inspired by the life and times of a middling paper sales company. Launched in the same year was Party Down, a Starz show that ran for two ten-episode seasons before being put to bed cruelly early after miserable ratings and a management changeover.

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Party Down is set at a low-rent L.A. catering company (“This Recession’s been great. When people want less, they turn to us!”) staffed by aspiring actors interested less in slinging apps and prepping trays and more in scoring cameos in the new Judd Apatow movie. You’d be forgiven for thinking ‘The Office? That sounds more like Extras’ but this one doesn’t venture onto the film-set, remaining firmly a workplace sitcom.

According to co-creator Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars, iZombie), it was born out of admiration for Gervais and Merchant’s Slough-based comedy, which he considers “the greatest TV show that had ever been done”. As Thomas tells it, Party Down was the result of a weekly group-viewing party: “We got into this habit. Each week everyone would come over to my place and we’d watch the previous week’s episode of The Office and then watch the current one. We started riffing. If we were to do a show like this, what would it be?”

Thomas’ weekly viewing party comprised fellow Veronica Mars writer/producers John Enbom and Dan Etheridge, along with, as Thomas remembers thinking when he first met him, “the guy from Clueless” whom you may know better as Paul Rudd (Ant-Man, Anchorman, the guy from Clueless).

Rudd remembers, “One of the very first ideas was, what happens to the “Can you hear me now?” guy when that campaign dries up?”. For those of us not in the US, the catchphrase refers to a long-running ad campaign for telecoms company Verizon. Think the ubiquity of the Gold Blend couple, before Tony Head erased his association with coffee bean-related seduction by dint of tweed, glasses, and Buffy The Vampire Slayer.  

Enter: Henry Pollard, the character of a once-promising young actor who landed a huge gig on a beer commercial that followed him around like a bad smell ever since. We meet Henry in Party Down’s first episode, disillusioned, retired from acting, and rejoining the catering company he’d left years earlier to pursue his big break.

The show’s themes of wasted potential and disappointment are tied up in Henry, once considered “the next Pacino” and now forced to tend bar wearing a baby pink bow-tie, and considering moving back home with his parents. As Henry tells Steve Guttenberg, playing himself in a stand-out season two episode, if nine times out of ten talented people will break through, then what about that other guy? Party Down is Henry’s experience of being “that other guy”.

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Back when the concept had been sold to HBO, Rudd was originally in line to play the role of Henry, with Steve Carrell a possibility for team leader Ron Donald. Their expanding movie careers nixed that notion, and in the years while the project was being shunted around from HBO to FX and eventually Starz, Adam Scott (Parks And Recreation) and Ken Marino (Eastbound And Down, The State) were cast in the roles and acquitted themselves brilliantly.

Joining them for the self-financed pilot filmed in Rob Thomas’ back garden and used to sell Starz on the idea were Jane Lynch (Glee, The L Word), Ryan Hansen (Veronica Mars), Andrea Savage (Episodes, Sweet Valley High) and Martin Starr (Freaks And Geeks). Later on, seasoned comedy director Fred Savage (Always Sunny In Philadelphia, Modern Family) also came on board.

In the pilot, Lynch and Hansen played the respective roles of Constance and Kyle (he’s in the handsome business), two actors—one decades into a marginal screen career and the other right at the start of his—who represent the yang to Henry’s downbeat yin. They’re both enthusiastic as Golden Labradors and unshakingly confident that they’re going to make it big.

Originally, Andrea Savage played struggling comedian Casey Klein, replaced years later by Lizzy Caplan (Mean Girls, True Blood, Freaks And Geeks) due to Savage being pregnant and unable to film when Starz finally bought the show. True to type, Starr played Roman, an arrogant, failing sci-fi screenwriter whose withering opinions on Hollywood belie his ambitions.

Unlike Parks And Recreation, the lifeboat the uber-likeable Adam Scott jumped in when it became clear that a third season wasn’t on the cards, Party Down found its feet right away. With only twenty episodes across the two seasons, there’s very little filler either. And despite the hoped-for third season (and talk of a movie) never appearing, it gives nothing away to say that season two ends on a satisfying note. You’ll want more, but you won’t be left bereft in the middle of the story.

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The show’s premise of a different party being catered each week adds variety and allows it to aim its satire at other targets than glamorous Hollywood shindigs. Very few of the parties are chi-chi affairs in fact, as befits Party Down’s second-rate reputation in the catering business. (Uber-caterers Valhalla, led by Veronica Mars’ Kristen Bell as icy perfectionist Uda, are sucking up all the first-class business.)

To give a taste of that variety, over two seasons we see Henry, Ron and co. cater a homeowners’ gathering, a singles seminar, a sweet sixteen, a high school reunion, a porn awards after-party, backstage at a Marilyn Manson-alike show, a suburban orgy, a staff wedding and more. (The porn awards and orgy episodes, as you’ll note from their frank and frequent nudity, were included at the behest of cable channel Starz, which requested more adult content in a bid to pep up ratings. Needless to say this side of cancellation, it didn’t work.) The carousel of settings forms a lively backdrop to the growing relationships between the characters, whose careers suffer all the concomitant ups and downs of those starting out in Hollywood.

The character who suffers the most ups and downs, and for whom you can’t help but root, isn’t even trying to break into the movies. Ken Marino is terrific as Ron Donald, a reformed stoner with a simple dream of managing his own branch of all-you-can-eat soup restaurant, Soup ‘R Crackers. Ron has the innocent wishfulness of Andy Dwyer, the chequered past of Jesse Pinkman, and the business acumen of Michael Scott.

The performances are so strong across the board in fact, that the cast keep frustratingly disappearing when they’re taken away by other projects. Ken Jeong only pops up in a couple of episodes before he went full time on Community. Jane Lynch was signed to FOX for Glee before Party Down started shooting, and so disappears after the first eight episodes to put on the Sue Sylvester track-suit. Lynch’s role is replaced in season one by Jennifer Coolidge (American Pie, Legally Blonde) and then in season two with new dippy stage-mom character Lydia, played by the wonderful Megan Mullally (Will And Grace, Parks And Recreation).

Mullally’s memory of getting the part typifies Party Down’s problem as the show that everybody agrees is great, but nobody watched when it was actually on. “My husband and I stumbled upon Party Down‘s first season, probably five or six episodes in. We were slightly confounded that there was this really great show on Starz.”

Sharply written and spoiled for terrific performances and fun guest stars, Party Down is a sardonic, sometimes shocking, always funny comedy treat. As well as being required viewing for Freaks And Geeks and Parks And Recreation completists, it stands on its own as a cancelled-too-soon great.

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