Friday, March 4, 2011

11. Party Down (Are We Having Fun Yet?)



“Well, there’s a lesson in there somewhere, right?”
-Henry tries to explain the mishmash of myriad events at the episode’s end leading to Ron losing his girlfriend and car – this is as much analysis as the show gives towards lessons learned;
(“Precious Lights Pre-School Audition,” Season 2, Episode 2)

Run time: March 20, 2009 – June 25, 2010
Created by: Jon Enbom & Rob Thomas & Dan Etheridge & Paul Rudd
Broadcast via: Starz

“Situational dramedy?” Is that the right word for this kind of show? (Or should I just go for it and shorten it to “sit-dram-com?”) There’s no word for it because Party Down was a very askew kind of continual comedy, and there really hasn’t ever been a show like it. There was nothing normal about this program; like Arrested DevelopmentParty Down was a very much it’s own thing, and also another unique program that was cut short while hitting its prime – though critically hailed, it failed to find a significant enough audience in time. Forget the fact that nobody watches Starz for original comedy on a Friday night, it’s still asking a lot of people to get excited about a comedy focusing on the work lives of caterers. Party Down is about a group of caterers (mostly aspiring actors) in Los Angeles who find themselves each and every episode encountering a new and unusual party. But despite a simple seeming premise, Party Down remains one of the oddest and most irreverent of so-called situational whatever funny shows. It’s an ensemble cast collision of epically comical proportions, all crammed into half-hour installments that take us to new locales and introduce us to new side characters each episode. It is no doubt a comedy, but it’s also something of an ongoing drama about the pratfalls of pursuing a dream of fame in Los Angeles. Starting from within the throes of America’s most recent economic recession, Party Down well captures the collective mindstates of the time: it clearly divides those who have accepted the horrors of a fractured future from the dreamers who won’t stop believin’.

At the heart and soul of the show are the dually top billed Ken Marino (a wonderful funny man I fell in love with after seeing Wet Hot American Summer) and Adam Scott (who I first saw started paying attention to after spotting him in another good comedy called Boy Meets World), both of whom play those polar opposite types to amazing depths (amazing for any role, let alone comedic ones). Marino’s Ron is the Party Down catering crew’s team leader, a (now) sober lover of life who attends sensitivity seminars and borrows professional trainer’s manuals, because he believes that if he works hard at doing a good job he will succeed. Scott’s Henry is a failed actor who has given up on pursuing an acting career despite once being a guy in a previously popular beer commercial, accepting his lot in life as the obscure fellow who served your drinks at that one function you went to. These two are surrounded by a band of believers who hardly admit that their job is catering, obsessed more with their anticipated future successes. They may not be a professional crew, but they are a funny one. Casey is a comedian, and though she is sassy and more than a cardboard protagonist’s intended girlfriend, she’s the least funny character in the cast. Not that I’m discrediting Lizzy Caplan’s performance, it’s just that Casey is as perceptive as Henry and realizes what she’s working with. There’s Roman, the unpublished writer who will treat with utter disdain anyone he thinks is not as smart as he is (which is pretty much everyone), and there’s Kyle, the mostly dim but ambitious actor/model/singer (“So, you’re basically in the handsome business?”) guy who would rather hook up or get drunk than serve food and drinks.

There are three other members who filled in one the crew’s last open slot, neither of whom made it through the show’s entire (all to short) run. First there was Constance, the catering crew’s adopted mother, an over-the-hill woman who has reimagined her extra-playing past as an acting career worthy of free reign to pass on wisdom to her under classmen (Kyle makes a grand pupil). Constance was played ably by Jane Lynch, who often plays truly crude people with aplomb; Lynch goes against type by playing perhaps the most sweet-natured yet na├»ve of the bunch, and it works wonderfully. Due to a contractual obligation to Glee starting to kick into high gear, Jennifer Coolidge (sadly, she’s most famous swooped in to fill Lynch’s slot for the end of the first season, blending right in with the crew as Constance’s roommate. But full-time fill-in gave us Megan Mullally. As Lydia, Mullally maintains Constance’s upbeat enthusiasm and heartfelt simple-mindedness, but deludes herself through a different prism: her daughter’s bright future. While scheming of ways to advance young Escapade’s career, Lydia also ratchets up the absurdity by not-really-subtly blending into each scenario (which is a stark contrast to Constance’s all-purposeful attempts at taking over a situation).

And so these six caterers are forced upon a party unfortunate enough to hire them, and hilarity ensues. But what could have easily been done in some stale sitcom format was instead applied to with a different pressure. It’s hard to say what this show is built from, other than four veteran Hollywood workers who knew a thing or two about working the hard life while trying to make it (please Google these creators by name for more information). Obviously having four creators with a fairly wide range of work will make it hard to pin down a specific set of influences, but Party Down really feels like something else. Sure, there are shades of the painfully awkward stylings of Curb Your Enthusiasm and UK original version of The Office. But there’s also that on-the-fly exhilaration present in Christopher Guest films and The State. And what to make of co-creator Rob Thomas’s recurring actors and crew from Veronica Mars? Poor Martin Starr, he’s now been in two of the Beloved But Killed So Soon list’s best shows: this and Freaks and Geeks, another show that took a squirm-inducing look at the eccentricities of everyday life. And yet Party Down isn’t really that similar to any of these comedies. It is decidedly character driven; narrative is ever-present yet never feels like a priority. It didn’t last long enough to find an audience who could collectively embrace such an offbeat type of program, which is a shame. Not since Seinfeld have episodes of a show so successfully and consistently climaxed into a mirthful euphoria by the end of the last act. And the ongoing nature of the shows reveled a lot about characters who we never saw outside of their jobs (except for one final shot of Adam Scott at the end).

You know those scenes in comedies that stop being funny and you get a whole scene of people pretending that this has all been about something significant and then there’s usually an audience than “awwwww”s? Party Down has none of those moments. Because it was on Starz, it had the freedom to makes jokes and create chaos without censorship, free of the commercial breaks that mess with the momentum of great storytelling. Instead of trite solutions to redundant (and stereotypical) problems, it simply stayed true to form and never deviated from its divine little method to letting things play out. Episodes can start out seeming disconnected and uninteresting to those not accustomed to its stlyings, but after things start to pick up, the comedic climaxes that are had make this show not just great for it’s off-the-cuff vibes but for its focus on storytelling and its attention to detail. It all comes together each time out, and it’s a cool thing for a TV show to do, never taking us away from the job yet giving us a healthy dosage of dramatic tension and character development, all laced between jokes and moments of moral uncertainty (or physical comedy).

It may be over, and that may be sad, but Party Down was pretty much perfect. And the fact that it didn’t last too long does make it easy to dive in to. That it never jumped the shark makes it that much more easy to put on a pedestal.

BEGINNING AND END CREDITS SCORE: 4.75/5
A fine little 15-second theme song players over the black-and-white Party Down logo, followed by the name of the event our crew is working that night – it’s really all we need to get ourselves ready for the unruliness about to unfold. The theme reprise at the end does provide an outlet for relief after the perfectly over the top ending. But the true genius of the end credit sequence is as simple as the show’s premise itself: after listing the director and writer of the episode (before the musical arrangement truly takes off), we cut away from the credits to an epilogue scene, giving us one final laugh before the music kicks in high and sends us off.
BEST CHARACTER: Lydia (played by Megan Mullally)
To not give this one a TIE rating to Ron & Henry (who, I can’t say it enough, are perfectly cast and played by Ken Marino and Adam Scott, respectively) is a real testament to the magnitude of merriment present in Megan Mullally’s performance. She did not have an easy gig ahead of her when she signed up, having to be the wacky gal to replace the damn fine replacement for the wacky gal. But Mullally nailed it, for the same reasons that my friends call don’t call it Will & Grace – they call it Jack & Karen. In fact, Ms. Megan has been on a roll lately, ultimately doing more episodes than originator Jane Lynch, while also joining the ensemble for Childrens Hospital (where she plays the hot crutch-bound chief of surgery) and making some nice guest spots of Parks and Recreation (ably squaring off against her husband Nick Offerman as Ron Swanson, Parks and Rec’s best character). I don’t know how to explain her certain charm or presence, it needs to be felt. What I can say though is that Mullally is a natural funny person, and she makes the offbeat endeavors seem to come from somewhere organic. More than any other character, she is a cartoon over a caricature, more animated and lively in her performance than any other actor in the cast. Of course, this is because her role, more than any other, allows her to be so. Mullally rose to the challenge and made it look easy. Who else could have done that, to elevate a show instead of sink? It was clearly one or the other, but with someone like Mullally, failure appears to not be an option.
BEST SEASON: 2 (of 2)
The second season really shaped things up quite powerfully. The highs kept getting higher (and of course, those lows got lower), and it makes me wonder what new limits they could have reached in future seasons. Megan Mullally quickly asserted herself into the group, and things were always in top gear. As far as I’m concerned, there was only one mild episode: the forth, “James Ellison Funeral” – and even that had a laugh-out-loud finale (and a life-altering moment for Ron, who ended up hotboxing himself in a coffin, which leads to him becoming “New-New Ron”), not to mention a retired dentist teasing Kyle by pretending to teach him the blues. While the seasons of Party Down did not have bold arcs a la Seinfeld or Curb, they still maintained a momentum from episode to episode, each week’s events sort of bleeding into the next. One of my favorite aspects of the season two is that it establishes a stronger past between Ron and Henry, who apparently both came up together in catering before Henry got discovered. Adam Scott and Ken Marino play off each other better than any other pairing on this show (yes, even better than the cute coupling of Scott and Lizzy Caplan, or the blonde buddy system set by Kyle Hansen and Jane Lynch), and this season really fleshes that out, starting with Henry and Ron in reversed roles and finding some strange ways to set them on their paths that could have made for a tremendous third season.
BEST EPISODE: “Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh” (Season 1, Episode 8)
Though just about every season two episode is a Best Episode – I especially love “Jackal Onsassis Backstage Party” (which features Party Down’s first cameo from an actor off The Wire as well as one of the McPoyle twins) and “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” (featuring The Goot himself, who forgot to cancel his birthday bash and instead invites the catering crew to be his party guests) – I have to show the first season some love, which did take a while to find its full-stride footing, but made some amazing steps in to some bold comedic territory all the same. This episode is a great example of the absolutely absurdity that could unfurl when the Party Down crew interacts with their clientele. Catering for what appears to be an Eastern European mob outfit, the gang truly gets absorbed into the festivities as the thickly accented partiers recognize our actors for their trivial performances from years back. Which means that Constance, Kyle, Casey and even Henry have become celebrities for the night, forcing Ron to handle all the catering himself while Roman reads the titular Mr. Sargulesh’s script, which he regards as “basically a badly written and poorly plotted confession” – apparently the whole event is to celebrate Ricky’s being acquitted of a murder charge. So the Party Down crew works in terror as the evening unfolds, and the madcap hilarity that ensues (thanks in no small part to guest star Steven Weber’s flawless facilitation of the episode’s eponymous role) reaches the types of heights that all great comedies (and dramas) aspire to.
BEST MOMENT: “My Struggle,” (from "Constance Carmel Wedding," Season 2, Episode 10)
Kyle is probably the show’s most underrated character, but I almost named him my favorite. Kyle Hansen played him well by dumbing him down without pity, revealing a lot about the vanity of vaguely ambitious pretty people. In getting to know him, we learn that he is in a “power emo” band called Karma Rocket, a band we finally get to see and hear for ourselves in the series finale, wherein they play for Constance’s wedding reception. It’s kinda rockin’, sure, but they’re about what we’ve always expected. But as you begin to comprehend Kyle’s lyrics about midnight trains and  branding people stars and being lined up just to be given a number, and you realize the groom and his family are Jewish, you can’t help but smirk at this blonde-haired blue-eyed pretty boy unknowingly paying homage to what he refers to as “the Holo-what?” It’s moments like these that will make Party Down one of the most missed shows around. And one of the best.
SPECIAL CATEGORY
BEST “ARE WE HAVING FUN YET?”: The last scene of the series premiere (“Willow Canton Homeowners Annual Party”)
We learn in the pilot of Henry’s failed career as an actor. Unlike everyone else working there, he has given up on being driven by ambition. But there was a time when Henry was ubiquitous, thanks to a beer ad which featured what would become his trademark line: “Are we having fun yet?” Henry tries to hide from his past in the pilot episode, but he’s outed before it’s all over. One of the partygoers knew she recognized him, and proceeds to fool around with him in his car. She’s enamored to be with a former star, and while giving him a hand job, insists on him repeating his signature statement. When he finally musters the strength to do so, he loses his libido (literally right in her hands), and we truly understand what anguish means just from the look on Adam Scott’s face).
[It should be noted that Fred Savage directed the pilot, along with many other classic installments (he handled half the first season along with directing vet Bryan Gordon, and such great season two eps as “Joel Munt’s Big Deal Party” and “Cole Landy’s Draft Day Party”). That a former child TV star is now directing some fiercely funny programming (he’s also helmed many an episode of It’s Always Sunny In Philadelphia and Phil of the Future, amongst other shows) is a nice thing, considering how careers go for most child actors (Kiernan Shipka hopefully excluded).]