I liked Party Down a lot when it ran for two seasons back in 2009–10, and I like it now upon its return for a long-delayed third season. This Starz comedy concerns a small catering company called Party Down, whose crew works a different event in each episode. The series manages to be both honest and affectionate as it satirizes the lives of Hollywood aspirants working dead-end jobs in Los Angeles.
Some of the events Party Down caters are Hollywood-related, such as “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday Party,” a highlight of the second season, and the third season opener “Kyle Bradway is Nitromancer,” in which one of the cast regulars, Ryan Hansen as the fatuous himbo Kyle, celebrates making it by scoring a rote superhero franchise. But most of the events represent the larger and more varied world of LA subcultures beyond the mainstream movie industry. Episode titles from the first season include “Willow Canyon Homeowners Annual Party,” “California College Conservative Union Caucus,” “Pepper McMasters Singles Seminar,” “Brandix Corporate Retreat,” “Stennheiser-Pong Wedding Reception,” and the “Sin Say Shun Awards Afterparty,” the latter of which takes place at an adult entertainment industry awards show reception where trophies were handed out to porn stars for “Best Blowjob” and other achievements.
Created and mostly written by Veronica Mars team John Enbom, Rob Thomas, and Dan Etheridge, plus actor Paul Rudd, Party Down was a critically lauded show that did badly in the ratings. But it became a cult favorite, with persistent fan demands that the show be renewed somehow, or extended as a stand-alone Party Down movie. As with the higher-profile cult-favorite show Arrested Development, when the belated new season finally arrived, it seemed strange and astonishing that fans succeeded in bringing it back.
If Party Down was an unsparing show thirteen years ago, seeming to confirm the inevitable failure of its characters’ attempts to realize their dreams, it’s even more ruthless now that the characters are mostly middle-aged. Fortunately, the show is still funny, and bracing dark humor can do a lot to make portraits of failure bearable. The show even creates a feeling of gallows-humor solidarity with its core audience who, being American, are likely to also be struggling to attain something like success.
The original seasons of Party Down were loaded with comedy talent, many of them up-and-coming at the time. The cast includes Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan, Jane Lynch, Ken Marino, Martin Starr, and Megan Mullally, and guest actors such as Jennifer Coolidge, Ken Jeong, and Kevin Hart. The show also featured established performers doing unusually bold comic turns, as for example J. K. Simmons’s maniacal producer constantly on his cell phone cursing somebody out with vicious inventiveness, or Ed Begley Jr’s Viagra-reliant old horndog at the singles event. Steve Guttenberg gives his greatest performance as a gregarious, ultranurturing version of himself, opting to host a party at his home for the caterers when he forgets to cancel his planned birthday event. There he eagerly stages an impromptu table reading to help the snidely superior Roman DeBeers (Starr) inject human emotion into his “hard sci-fi” script.
The abundance of talent showcased in the series was, ironically, a factor in its early cancellation. Besides the low ratings, two important cast regulars were planning to leave Party Down at the end of Season 2 to do other shows, which ultimately made them very well-known: Adam Scott headed out to Parks and Recreation and Jane Lynch opted to do Glee.
Fortunately for those who got hooked on the first two seasons, they contained a beautiful narrative arc. The lead character, Henry Pollard (Scott), began the show as an amused, detached outsider, refusing to get drawn back into the showbiz dreams of his fellow caterers. He’d once been a contender himself, a genuinely talented actor on the rise, whose seeming good fortune in landing a lucrative beer commercial ultimately killed his career when he became known exclusively as the guy delivering the bland let’s-party line, “Are we having fun yet?”
But in the end, as Henry encouraged his despairing girlfriend Casey Klein (Caplan) — an aspiring comedian who just had her potentially career-making performance edited out of a Judd Apatow film — he found himself drawn in again. The last shot of the second season is of Henry, up for an independent film role he really wants, headed into the stark audition space, looking anxiously hopeful. As gloomy as the show is about the odds of success, we find ourselves gradually, against all better judgment, shifting from “Don’t be a sucker, Henry!” to “Go for it, Henry, follow your dream!”
Simultaneously moving in the opposite direction from Henry in the first two seasons is Constance Carmell (Lynch), a madcap, die-hard, middle-aged actor who’s spent twenty-some years in the business playing every kind of bizarre walk-on and tiny role possible in B movies and bad TV. She’s also had wild sexual encounters with half of Hollywood and loves to share the freaky details. But far from feeling tired or jaded or used up, she’s a zany, upbeat cheerleader, always looking forward to her next adventure. She unexpectedly concludes the series by getting out of the acting biz, marrying a rich old roué she actually loves in her perpetually naive way. He dies in the limo as they’re driving away from their looney wedding, and she inherits a fortune.
These two character arcs reveal the show’s insight into the maddening quality of life in proximity to Hollywood, always feeling that you’re one day, one audition, one crazy encounter away from wild success or cataclysmic failure. Some characters experience both several times, such as the hapless Ron Donald (Marino), bumbling manager and eventually the owner of Party Down Catering. A former hard partier himself, he’s trying to turn himself into a hard-working type A entrepreneur in the Hollywood-adjacent service industry. Ron almost succeeds and then proceeds to blow it at an exhausting rate, all the while convincing himself that he’ll make it this time.
Picking up the threads of the show many years later with the six-episode Season 3, we’re shown how the fortyish characters have ended up. The only one of the main cast who hasn’t returned is Caplan, who played Casey Kelin, formerly Henry’s aspiring-comedian girlfriend. In dialogue it’s revealed that Casey was the one who made it big with a stint on Saturday Night Live, and her former coworkers catch glimpses of her grinning face in regular coverage of her glamorous life on entertainment TV. Meanwhile, Henry’s acting dreams never materialized — he’s now a high school teacher on the verge of divorce. The need for extra money to pay alimony puts him back in the Party Down catering uniform of white shirt and pink bowtie.
Kyle comes back too, after his big Nitromancer prospects fizzle during the first episode. The embittered Roman never left, and has resigned himself to becoming famous for his uncompromising “hard sci-fi” writing after his death. Lydia Dunfree (Mullally) has stayed on all these years as well, while at the same time managing the career of her daughter Escapade (Kaitlyn Dever), who started acting at age thirteen and is now, in her twenties, beginning to suffer the psychological effects.
New cast members include aspiring food artist Lucy (Zoe Chau) as the new Party Down chef, refusing to compromise her appalling-tasting edible creations and young content creator Sackson (Tyrel Jackson Williams) who’s always finding ways to film his latest TikTok video while on catering jobs. Jennifer Garner plays Hollywood producer Evie, who finds sad-eyed Henry a refreshing change from her flashy, perpetually cheating actor boyfriend (James Marsden). These three haven’t quite gelled yet as members of the ensemble, but the overall quality of writing in the show is still high enough to carry them along with the older, stronger characters.
In one great comic moment during the “Kyle Bradway is Nitromancer” episode, Kyle is talking to the actor who almost got the Nitromancer part but in the end lost out to him. The actor notes bitterly that the two of them have the same kind of image and acting abilities and are always up for the same parts, which suggests that randomness is a big factor in their relative success of failure. Kyle’s face, which now has forehead lines and thinning hair on top, gradually falls as he considers the possibility that he was simply lucky and may not be again. He tries to recover his belief in the meritocracy by insisting that he’s succeeding because, in pursuing his dream of Hollywood stardom, it’s always been his practice to “go hard.” The other actor says that he, too, goes hard, as a matter of course, and Kyle insists he couldn’t possibly go as hard as Kyle always has, and therefore Kyle must deserve his huge success. From that point, you can count the minutes till his star-making role in Nitrocmancer evaporates.
And the guest stars are as great as ever. Nick Offerman shows up in the most recent episode, called “First Annual PI2A Symposium,” (with PI2A standing for “Policy Ideas 2 Action”). As a guest speaker at an alt-right event, his serenely expressed admiration for Adolf Hitler is causing panic for the event organizer. This earnestly smiling young right-winger reassures the appalled caterers, “We are a new group building a conservative politics based on open-minded, good-faith debate in an open marketplace of ideas!” As an AV Club review notes grimly:
Series co-creator John Enbom penned the scripts for both “California College Conservative Union Caucus” and “First Annual PI2A Symposium,” bookending an era that saw right-wing politics metastasize into something grotesque. Though the 2023 Party Down team makes no bones about calling their clients Nazis, they’re almost as nonplussed as they were about the budding neocons they served back in 2009.
Season 3’s topicality has some shocking effects, reminding us, if we needed reminding, that it’s been a very rough thirteen years since Season 2 ended. The COVID epidemic is handled briskly in the first return episode, when the main cast is united to celebrate Kyle’s ascent to stardom, and Ron is looking forward confidently to handling big high-profile events from now on. While Ron’s burbling on about the bright future of events catering, Henry is watching the news on TV behind the bar, describing a deadly pandemic just beginning to reach American shores. The next time we see Ron, he’s emerging — sweaty, unkempt, and financially busted — from the Party Down van where he’s been living during the lockdown.
Soon Henry has returned to the low-paying, dead-end catering job he had a decade earlier, when he was young and unlined, only now it’s his side gig on top of teaching full-time. Though he felt jaded back then, it turns out he hadn’t even begun to plumb the depths of somber world-weariness he’s achieved since. We know the feeling. If the show weren’t so funny, we wouldn’t be able to bear it.