Rob Thomas, the man behind “Veronica Mars” and “Cupid” (the old “Cupid,” with Jeremy Piven, and the coming new “Cupid” with Bobby Cannavale) and briefly associated with the rebranding of “90210,” has found a new outlet on the relatively remote reaches of Starz, the cable network that shares a name with a bushy-haired 1970s power-pop band. “Party Down,” which premieres tonight, is the show in question, and it is a smart, affable, mostly unpredictable ensemble comedy that reminds us that in the 500-channel universe, fine things can happen in unlikely places, as long as you are clever about budget, commit to a sensible number of episodes -- in this case 10 -- write well and cast right, and that what matters ultimately to heaven is not the eminence of the venue but the quality of the work.
“Party Down” follows a troupe of Southern California caterers as they go from job to job, an arrangement that requires only a single location for each episode and insures variety across the series. It’s a bit like “The Office” on wheels, except where “The Office” is about people who, for better or worse, really identify with their jobs, “Party Down” is mostly about people who want something else. Except for enthusiastic team leader Ron (Ken Marino), a formerly aspiring actor who has had a Damascus moment and now regards his job with cult-like satisfaction, none are in catering for catering’s sake. They are all show business hopefuls staying alive between auditions and the rare gig -- or, in the case of Ron’s old friend Henry (Adam Scott), who was briefly famous for a beer commercial, merely lacking any better plan.
“Were you that guy?” asks fellow caterer and possible love interest Casey (Lizzy Caplan), finally recognizing him.
“Yes I was.”
“You were. You’re totally that guy. That is bananas. I remember you. What are you doing working here?”
“Do you remember me from anything else?”
It’s not only the caterers who are looking for something better. In the pilot, Enrico Colantoni guests as the host of a homeowners association party who feels trapped by respectability (“I wasn’t always like this -- I was in a band, living crazy”) and winds up naked in his pool yelling at his neighbors, “You’re already dead.” In another episode, set at a seminar for elderly singles (led by Marilu Henner), a character played by Ed Begley Jr., enumerates to Kyle (Ryan Hansen) the pills he takes in order to feel young: “Keep the right balance, dude, I’m a teenager.” (It is not as depressing a show as I may have just made it sound.)
More than a few viewers will be attracted to this series merely by the presence of Martin Starr, of “Freaks and Geeks” fame, who has pushed his glasses back up his nose and acquired attitude, as a writer of unsold “hard sci-fi” screenplays. Also here are the divine Jane Lynch as an aging veteran minor actor (“You ever play a corpse? . . . That’s a challenge”) who uses the parties she works as a kind of substitute stage, and Hansen as a woolly brained actor-musician.
Given all the catered functions in this town, and all the many opportunities for things to go wrong, or get weird, I am sure that everything that happens here has happened somewhere -- sex, drugs, CPR -- though perhaps not with such antic frequency. Really, it’s a wonder anyone gets their food.