"Party Down" (Hulu). This comedy about a less than merry band of caterers, which went for two seasons on Starz in 2009 and 2010, was created by "Veronica Mars" mastermind Rob Thomas with "Mars" cohorts Dan Ethridge and John Enhom and actor Paul Rudd, who appeared in the pilot but was a movie star by the time the series came around. Even so the cast reads like some retrospective supergroup whose album you can't believe you've never heard (unless you did): Adam Scott (in for Rudd), recent Rolling Stone cover girl Lizzy Caplan, Ken Marino, Jane Lynch (who left near the end of the first season for "Glee" but returned for what turned out to be the series' finale), Martin Starr, Megan Mullally and Ryan Hansen (now going from the axed "Bad Teacher" to the new "Bad Judge"), but with appearances also from cool kids Ken Jeong, Joey Lauren Adams, Kristen Bell, June Diane Raphael, and various cool kids like Jim Piddock, Paul Scheer, Thomas Lennon, J.K. Simmons and Rachael Harris among others. (My original review is here.) Every episode is set at a different Southern California party or event, bringing in a fresh group of guest stars and a new theme to explore, while the servers work out their own messy business, their antipathies and affinities, as they remind one another and themselves that this is just a job and what they Really Do is act, play music, write. The series, which punches above its weight, has a guerrilla swing to it -- well-finished, but not overtly slick in the way even shoestring productions manage to look now -- and one can sense the actors' delight beneath their characters' dissatisfaction.
Funny or Die videos starring famous people (Funny or Die). In the super-compressed world of the new media, little things can blow up big. In the 10 days since it was first uploaded, for instance, more than 7 million people have watched the Television Academy's Emmy promo "Barely Legal Pawn," a YouTube short featuring Bryan Cranston, Julia Louis-Dreyfus and Aaron Paul -- funnier, incidentally, than anything on the Emmys broadcast that didn't also feature Cranston and Louis-Dreyfus. That's about 6 million more people than watch an average episode of "Veep," and twice or more as many as watched "Breaking Bad" for most of its initial run. So while it may still seem remarkable when some celebrated name shows up in a humble Web video, that's just the ghost of old assumptions hanging 'round. I give you "Between Two Ferns," with President Obama.
As a producer and aggregator of online comedy, Funny or Die has the extra benefit of being the creation and plaything of Will Ferrell and his creative partner Adam McKay: It's a respected brand, with institutional heft and a sizable Rolodex. The following star-studded videos have all gone up on the site in the last month or so. Some play with what we know about the actors, some with what we know about the characters they play. Some have a political message built in, or tacked on. (The comments can get heated.) All are guaranteed to have made me laugh. (Note to bean counters: The links below are to the YouTube platform; there are millions more hits on the home site.)
In "Couples Therapy" Elisabeth Moss plays the therapist to couple Ted Danson and Mark Duplass. Their issue: that Danson wants to use the whole of their savings to buy the suit Prince wears on the cover of "Purple Rain." In "Modern Office," Christina Hendricks, in her Joan Harris "Mad Men" persona, goes to work in a 21st-century office; hilarity ensues -- she tries to stick a piece of paper into the top of a computer as if it were a typewriter, can't find a phone that looks like a phone -- on the way to the kicker: "In the U.S. women make 23% less than their male counterparts," Christina/Joan says. "If we're going to run our businesses like it's the 1960s, I'm going to act like it. Or I could have had a stroke -- I smoke a lot." In the practically perfect in every way "Mary Poppins Quits," Kristen Bell puts on her best Julie Andrews in support of raising the minimum wage: "In every job that must be done/You must be paid in more than fun.... I don't get these birds for free."
A trailer for "Sharklumbo" is just what it sounds like: "It's a shark, and it's also Peter Falk as Columbo." Gina Gershon is in it. Kevin Pollak plays the shark. In "Sean Bean Death Scene" the much-killed Sean Bean can't quite accept that he won't be dying in a scene from his current show, "Legends." And in "How to Golf with Jason Dufner," champion golfer Dufner pitches the 130th volume of his instructional series, with lessons in How To Eat a Tuna Melt at the Club After Playing, How To Get Your Car From the Valet Attendant, How to Fall Asleep After Your Delicious Plate of Late Night Nachos and How to Respond to Your Representatives When They Want You to Make More Instructional Golf Videos But You Have Nothing Left to Teach People ("You're going to want to use your vocal cords to form the words").
"Manhattan" (WGN). About halfway through the its first season, this World War II science-soap, set in Los Alamos, N.M., where scientists and soldiers gathered to create the atomic bomb, is shaping up splendidly as a mix of domestic passion, historical fiction, hopeful philosophy, paranoid intrigue and general craziness, couched in satisfying earthy period detail. (Creating a town to make a show about a town created to make a bomb -- "gadget," as they call it -- offers satisfying parallelism.) There is comedy, too happily, and a good bit of sex between the blackboard and the bomb site -- though it's just basic cable sex. (Also, happily.) Some of the characters are still thin, but the revelations are beginning to pop now. Olivia Williams, as the frustrated botanist wife of the haunted physicist played by John Benjamin Hickey, attempting to create a satisfying life within the restrictions her situation brings, is already the show's beating heart; it's worth dropping in just to watch her for a while. You can catch up with what you've missed via Hulu.