In 2009, Party down felt like lightning in a bottle: an ensemble comedy starring some of the heaviest hitters in the business, created by Veronica Mars genius Rob Thomas (no, not that Rob Thomas), alongside John Enbom, Dan Etheridge and Paul Rudd (yes, that Paul Rudd). The show, which ran on Starz for two seasons, told the story of a group of Los Angeles caterers, budding, embittered creative types struggling to make ends meet in a city that hates them. You had aParks and recreation Adam Scott, with a post-Mean girls Lizzy Caplan, next to pre-Silicon Valley Martin Starr and post-Veronica Mars Ryan Hansen, not to mention a pre-cheerfulness Jane Lynch and Perpetual Genius (and former member of The state) Know Marina.
Party down gained a devoted cult following, but ended its run prematurely as his talent was picked up elsewhere. I remember it felt like an ingenious discovery in the early days of streaming: my college roommates and I had never seen a sitcom so in tune with our referential, goofy sense of humor. That also helped Party down wasn’t too plot driven – like the sitcom days of yore, it was mostly about the atmosphere and workplace, each episode focused on a different event. We rarely, if ever, saw the Party Down crew out of work and denying their existence beyond their menial jobs. This is the fear of many in the service industry: These workers, often downgraded and often underpaid, fear that their customers – their rude, insane, demanding customers – will never see them as anything else. Party down‘s ragtag group of caterers were delusional in their own right, but never crazier than any of the people they worked for.
The show is now back for a six-episode limited run on Starz after years of fan recruiting. This has often been in response to Thomas’s work, such as Veronica Mars eventually turned into a fan-funded movie several years after its initial run (and later its own Hulu revival). In many ways, it seems like the perfect time for a show like Party down return; after all, who has had to deal with the ugliest conversations or worse conditions in society in recent years than the hospitality workers? But the new Party down episodes, perhaps to their detriment, just want to deal with the COVID of it all to one point. The first new episode serves as a prologue to the series, set in March 2020 and full of “2020 will be my year” altruism. If only they knew! But later episodes almost completely slide over the pandemic.
Since we last saw them, Ron van Marino has been building out his Party Down catering service, with Roman (Starr) one of the few remaining employees under his tenure. Henry (Scott) is now a high school teacher, married to an off-screen woman with a few off-screen children. He’s classically miserable, both because he’s given up on his acting dream and also because he’s always like that. Caplan’s Casey won’t be returning for these new episodes, though she’s never far from Henry’s mind: an SNL cast member and tabloid fixture, we always hear about her on the news. Lydia (Lynch) and Constance (Megan Mullally) are back, the former newly married to a wealthy older man and the latter still hyper-focused on her daughter Escapade’s career. The season premiere is almost a standalone experience, a prologue, so to speak, as the gang reunites to celebrate Kyle (Hansen), who has just been cast as “Nitromancer” in a new super hero longboat, ready to make it big. .
Something always goes wrong with a Party down Party: Bitter about his impending fame, a member of Kyle’s old band Karma Rocket leaks footage of Kyle singing their song “My Struggle,” which is full of unintentional references to the Holocaust. This would be a funny and surprising reveal, if only longtime fans wouldn’t remember that “My Struggle” was already a major part of the first run of the season. Kyle’s insistence that it’s all a coincidence – that the references to “being put on a train” and “being assigned a number” are about Hollywood – is amusing, if not familiar. With Kyle back to work at Party Down, soon to be followed by Henry, the gang are now back to their old catering gigs, as if nothing ever changed.
In fact, many of the new episodes of Party down feel familiar, the content of the show to play the hits a dozen years since their first play. The group hosts a bizarre neo-conservative event in the third episode, “First Annual PI2A Symposium,” which harkens back to the first season’s “California College Conservative Union Caucus.” There is an extended mushroom trip in the fourth episode, “KSGY-95 Prizewinner’s Luau”, which harkens back to the first season’s “Sin Say Shun Awards Afterparty”. The rampant fame of these new episodes is both a feature and a bug. At its best, Party down turned its wheels: the whole joke was that these people would never go anywhere or do anything, and their pursuit is something to be mocked. Their fears – not good enough, not hot enough, not skilled enough to run a Soup’r Crackers – were exposed again and again for the benefit of their customers alone. It was dark, frustrating and relentlessly funny. But the new episodes are less focused on the monotony of work, too filled with loosely connected plotliness and a half-hearted attempt to poke fun at what Hollywood is like now. Things have changed, but not; more of the same doesn’t necessarily mean sharper commentary.
In part, that’s thanks to a handful of the new characters introduced by the show: Sackson (Tyrel Jackson Williams) and Lucy (Zoë Chao) are recent Party Down hires, the former a “content creator” and the latter a nouveau gastronomy type. While Williams is energetic and undeniably funny, Party down doesn’t have much to say about being on TikTok is a job other than “Isn’t that crazy?” and “Aren’t the dances so stupid?” There’s a tacit acceptance that posting is labor for some, with little more research than that (including the oft-mentioned but seldom-discussed fact that Roman is now apparently a YouTuber). Lucy similarly feels one note and observed, a foodie in search of an audience that will appreciate her disgusting, avant-garde cuisine. She conjures up a new gross treat every episode, but feels dejected when Ron berates her for not requiring cake pops or any trite food from her.
Both Williams and Chao bring a fun energy to the group and it’s nice to see the show making an effort to diversify the otherwise very white cast, but it’s clear the writers aren’t sure how to ensnare them in the recurring cast. Party down can’t decide whether being a full-time content creator is a worthy job, nor can it determine how a person with integrity in the food service can become a caterer (although there are plenty of TikTok celebrity personal chefs doing well in Los Angeles, according to my feeding). The jokes in it Party down it was less about the nature of the job itself and more about the ambition underlying it, but it’s hard to understand why Sackson or Lucy ended up with this gig that they think is beneath them.
The other major addition to the show is Evie (Jennifer Garner), a hotshot producer who takes an interest in Henry. Party down doesn’t want Garner to take over from Caplan, but she fits in well with the cast. Garner is game and an enthusiastic performer – I’m never mad to see her appear – but an odd match for the always sardonic Scott. It’s hard to know where their storyline is going because they’ve only seen and know the first five of the six episodes Party downHis often sadistic tone is probably good for nothing. But her inclusion is proof that the series is meant more to comment on Hollywood, the industry’s cruel, casual indifference, than the food service workers. Not to mention, for the most part, the dynamic between Evie and Henry is, unfortunately, pretty boring.
That the March 2020 show skips to sometime in the late summer or early fall of 2021 overlooks many of the roughest parts of the pandemic for workers, noting only that Ron worked through it, suffered multiple times from COVID, his various side effects crop up when most comically effective (and in Marino’s hands, very much so). Party down was never strictly Hollywood or service commentary, but the return is so steeped in the unfairness and inequality of an ever-similar Hollywood that it forgets an industry that has been completely ripped apart in recent years. That the new episodes are so similar to the old ones isn’t a disappointment as we watch the show for bitter catharsis, but it tells us nothing about a flawed industry on full display for its brutality since the show first went off the air went . If comedy in general “happens differently” in a post-pandemic world, why lean on such well-known beats?
In a busy landscape of reboots and revivals, the new Party down episodes are neither the worst of the worst nor the best of the best. This is still one of the best casts in ages, full of performers who haven’t lost their edge. Marino, in particular, is a welcome presence in the television landscape, one of the most accomplished, manic, and original comedic actors of a generation. Ron Donald is also a creation of all times. I could watch him scream forever, and part of what I realized watching this final season is that he probably will. These new episodes will thrill those who missed the show’s undeniably entertaining, pointless banter. That was the secret of it Party down the show and Party Down the company: this work was always meant to be a filler for these characters, eager to move on to something else. That these characters remain stuck in a revival, shiny and shiny and cheap and miserable, feels like the kind of the original Party down would be content to skewer. That the world around it Party down seems as bleak and unforgiving as it did a dozen years ago, it’s not their fault; the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over hoping for a different result.