Party Down is a comedy about a group of aspiring/washed-up Hollywood types working for a catering company. Created by Rob Thomas (writer and creator of the excellent Veronica Mars), John Enbom, Dan Etheridge, and Paul Rudd, the series boasts an impressive behind-the-scenes group. The first season of the series focuses on establishing the cast and creating a tone that took a few episodes to fine tune. Because the main cast is comprised of six characters, in addition to numerous guest stars every week, and the show only runs for a half hour, each episode has to find a balance in focus and timing in order to really work.
As the series opens, Henry (Adam Scott) is returning to work at the Party Down catering company after his acting career never went any further than being famous for a catchphrase (“Are we having fun yet?”) in a beer commercial. His return gives catering leader, Ron (Ken Marino), the opportunity to preach and offer platitudes and advice as a newly-sober aspiring businessman. The catering company is rounded out by Kyle (Ryan Hansen), a dumb, but handsome actor; Roman (Martin Starr), an aspiring screenwriter with a superior attitude; Casey (Lizzy Caplan) , a stand-up comic and Henry’s love interest; and Constance (Jane Lynch), an actress with an uninspiring resume.
Much of the humor in Party Down comes from the frequently ridiculous and over-the-top clients that range from a singles seminar to a producer’s daughter’s sweet sixteen to a mobster’s party. Placing the cast in a different setting for each episode helps to keep things fresh and allows for the focus to shift between characters often depending on an angle one of them is working to get their foot in the door in Hollywood. As they vacillate between an unfounded overconfidence and crippling desperation, the cast plays with Hollywood stereotypes and the larger than life personalities in that world.
Perhaps the series’ biggest strength lies in its able cast. While all six of the regulars are very good, Lynch is particularly hilarious, especially when doling out acting advice to the oddly receptive Kyle. Unfortunately, Lynch had to leave the show for Glee and Constance will surely be missed next season. Scott’s Henry also stands out as the resigned and deadpan cautionary tale, as does Marino’s Ron with his seemingly endless array of cringe-inducing awkward moments. In the commentary tracks included in the set, there is mention of the cast’s improvisational freedom and there is a looseness to their performances that adds to the charm of the show.
While some of the earlier episodes do have a tendency to meander or not completely gel, for the most part, the series does a good job of blending the absurd with some semblance of just how unforgiving breaking into Hollywood can be. Although the show does tend more towards the outlandish, many of the best moments are those that emphasize the relationships between the characters rather than the bizarre situations they find themselves in.
In addition to its regular cast, Party Down also benefits from some great guest stars. Some of the standouts include J.K. Simmons as a foul-mouthed, intimidating producer; Steven Weber as a mobster with his own screenwriting dreams; and Kristen Bell as the non nonsense leader of a rival catering company. In addition to the regular guest stars, Jennifer Coolidge steps in as Bobbie, Constance’s roommate and her replacement on a couple of the jobs.
Bonus features include commentary tracks with Enbom, Etheridge, and Scott on two episodes; a couple of short featurettes (Party Down: A Look Behind the Scenes and What Is Party Down?) clearly produced as promotional material for Starz; outtakes; and a gag reel. While not essential, these extras round out the set nicely, particularly the commentaries which offer some information on series and episode origins.