The ‘Party Down’ revival is every bit the equal of the original
Perhaps the hardest thing about reunions, past getting them to happen in the first place, is convincing the world that the effort was worth it. Whatever excitement news of a revival generates among fans is inevitably accompanied by the suspicion that it won’t live up to what made them love the original. At the same time, there’s the question of whether it can speak to a new audience in a world that’s moved on — is it just replaying the old hits for the sake of nostalgia, or does it have something fresh to say? Is it a cynical cash grab, a lazy recycling of intellectual property, or is it a genuine attempt to make something good, out of love, or for fun, or the feeling of just not being done?
It’s unlikely that anyone not directly involved with the Starz series “Party Down” had been thinking about a third season, but we have one (premiering Friday, again on Starz), 13 years after the end of the second. And speaking as a fan of what came before, what’s here now seems very much worth the effort, of a piece with its splendid predecessor in style and humor — there are no formal innovations for the sake of formally innovating — but not in any sense outdated. (Whether the kids will care, who can say? But they should.)
A hectic dark farce cum social satire set among a team of L.A.-based caterers, “Party Down” was, and remains, a mobile workplace comedy, each episode based at a different sort of event in a different location, where things inevitably go wrong for the hosts, the guests or the people hired to serve them — not so much a movable feast as a movable food fight. Its original cast, returning almost entirely intact, seems even more impressive now, retrospectively a supergroup: Adam Scott, Jane Lynch, Martin Starr, Lizzy Caplan, Ken Marino, Megan Mullally, Ryan Hansen — only Caplan is missing from the new season, on account of a work conflict. Able new members Tyrel Jackson Williams and Zoë Chao provide generational breadth, with Jennifer Garner coming in as the romantic interest for Scott’s luckless everyman, Henry.
The team behind Starz’s comedy, which returns Friday after 13 years, has had plenty of experience with unglamorous day jobs. Here are their stories.
Created by Rob Thomas (who earlier brought back his “Veronica Mars” on the back of a Kickstarter campaign), John Enborn, Dan Etheridge and Paul Rudd, with Enborn as this season’s showrunner, it’s a comedy of failure, and rising to fail again. (The most conventionally “successful” characters — that is, the ones doing the hiring — are usually the least appealing.) No one except Marino’s Ron, who is about to take over the business, is there for the love of catering; indeed, one would say they are very bad at their jobs, often disappearing to get high, make out or otherwise follow their own agendas.
As the new season begins, the characters, who have scattered to the wind, reunite at a party to celebrate the fact that Kyle (Hansen) has been cast in a superhero franchise. Only Starr’s Roman, a forever unpublished, constitutionally bitter writer of “hard sci-fi” (“You make it big in this cultural void it only proves that you suck on some level. … I accept the possibility that I probably won’t be appreciated in my lifetime”), is, appropriately, after 13 years, still working for Party Down. Henry, a discouraged actor who was about to give it another go as the second season ended, has become an English teacher; Mullally’s impossibly optimistic, naive Lydia is managing the successful film career of her daughter, Escapade (Kaitlyn Dever).
There are callbacks to the second season finale, in which Lynch’s Constance became a bride, a widow and an heiress in the course of 30 minutes; an extremely high Roman scribbled his “magnum opus” on a roll of toilet paper, and Kyle’s band, Karma Rocket, performed a song whose lyrics, unintentionally, came off as an ode to Hitler. (“People just don’t get poetic rock lyrics,” muses Constance, “and that is sadly why the Doors never caught on.”)
By the second episode, Kyle and Henry will be back wearing white shirts and bow ties, mixing drinks and serving hors d’oeuvres, and the randomly spiritual Constance, whose first thought is that they should hire a shaman, will be a part owner of Party Down. Their new colleagues include Sackson (Williams), a maker of web content, and Lucy (Chao), a deadly serious chef whose food is not meant to taste good, only to create complicated feelings. For a surprise birthday party she creates “basic sheet cake done in on-sale store-bought style with a center of ripened Camembert. … You get an innocent childlike sweetness in front followed by an earthy whiff of decay. … It’s a rumination on mortality.”
While Caplan is missed — her character, Casey, has become famous on “Saturday Night Live” — her presence would likely have meant another season of things going on and off between her and Henry, which might have been a season too far. As Lynch’s departure after the first season to work on “Glee” made room for Mullally, Caplan’s unavailability opens a door for Garner, as a film executive, bringing a glimmer of happiness for Henry — their relationship, in any case, lacks the toxic uncertainty of that with Casey, which may be the most novel thing about this new season.
On the most immediate level, the joy of “Party Down” has less to do with narrative development — again, this is a show about being stuck, and the third season doesn’t really feel like an attempt to cap an unfinished story — as watching a pack of talented actors taking good material and running with it. (That they’re having fun is evident.)
That is not to say that there aren’t small triumphs and genuinely emotional moments amid the disasters, and something of an arc to the new season; if there’s a problem here, it’s that at six episodes it’s too short — sitcoms need time to breathe. All the same, as a revival of a 13-year-old series, it feels full of freshman possibilities, and one hopes it doesn’t end here.
Rating: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)
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