Party Down is an ensemble comedy which, like its cable neighbors It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia, East Bound & Down and The League, wrings a lot of laughs out of its downwardly mobile, self-deluded and vaguely cannabis-scented characters.
Party Down centers on a catering crew made up of aspiring and expiring Hollywood players who pay the rent by donning white shirts, black trousers and humiliating pink bow ties in order to distribute shrimp puffs and gin and tonics to people far more successful than they. Each episode focuses on a different event, but most tend to have a similar theme: The contrast between the successful partiers and their eternally frustrated servers. True, in a few cases the partiers aren’t successful at all, as in the episode where the Party Down crew caters a Waiting For Guffman-like community theater production, but the point remains the same: These people are not going anywhere.
The servers include a sexy young Jewish comedienne (Lizzie Caplan) who is scrabbling for a spot on the lowest rungs of Hollywood stardom; her sometime boyfriend, Henry (Adam Scott), who in Season Two has more or less given up on his acting ambitions; a handsome cement head (Ryan Hansen) who’s convinced he’ll be a major star; a stage mom played by the exceedingly droll Megan Mullally; and a supercilious screenwriter of “hard science fiction” (Martin Starr), whose status in the Hollywood hierarchy is slightly below that of the guy who scrapes the hardened gum off the Hollywood Walk of Fame.
Party Down‘s second season features the various career and personal crises of the crew against the background of a funeral, an unsuccessful orgy, a fundraiser for a private school for the privileged children of vulgar producers, and a hot tub birthday party for Steve Guttenberg.
There is not a single episode in Season Two that is not funny and well written, and not one that isn’t also pretty depressing. There’s a double irony in every episode that Guttenberg’s guest-starring role accentuates: Out of every 10,000 or so aspiring actors above the age of 15, perhaps one or two makes it in a big and permanent way, and often there’s no discernible reason why one actor has made it and thousands of similarly talented actors have not.
How is “big and permanent” defined? Well, perhaps, as somewhere a bit to the north of where the stars of Party Down themselves reside. With the exception of Mullally and, in Season One, Jane Lynch, most of the stars of Party Down, which unfortunately never had much of an audience and was canceled earlier this year, are fairly distant from where one might guess they’d like to be in their careers. And Guttenberg, who once was a major star, has slipped down the ladder too, though not so far that he can’t genially lord it over the losers of the Party Down catering crew, albeit as a fictionalized version of himself.
Even Adam Scott, more or less the star of the ensemble, has trouble establishing himself as a distinctive character and is handicapped by his weak voice and slightly rodentine appearance. His romantic relationships with the characters played by Caplan and, in one episode, the very pretty Kristen Bell, seem almost as implausible as Woody Allen’s, with whatever nubile young thing he’s cast in his latest fantasy.
But the “Party” part makes the “Down” part worth enduring, even if most of the humor comes from the cynicism and inescapable specter of failure under which each character labors. One character mutters of another, “fucking can’t-act creature from the no-talent lagoon,” and in saying this, it’s not hard to imagine that he’s thought of himself similarly from time to time. Other jokes are just plain funny, though, like one half of a couple who starts to say, “we finish each other’s…” “Food, I know,” interjects the other character, before the first one says, “no, sentences.”
The funeral episode, in which the Party Down team strives to hide a deceased man’s infidelity from his upstanding widow, is fine farce, and the “Jackal Onassis Backstage Party” episode, in which the titular character, a Marilyn Manson type who’s tired of adulation, applause, and beautiful women, trades places with one of the caterers, is hilarious. The caterer, who in full dreadful regalia appears indistinguishable from Jackal, still can’t garner a groupie to save his life. Some people have all the luck (whether they appreciate it or not) and others have none. As Party Down reminds us, in Hollywood and everywhere else in our recessionary world, there’s less and less middle ground.
The extras include a gag reel and not much else.