A comedy about the indignities of working as a cater-waiter, “Party Down” is back with a new season just a mere (squints) 13 years since new episodes last aired on Starz. The series ran for only two seasons originally, but it was Adam Scott’s breakout role as a guy who flamed out as an actor and is instead stuck wearing that infernal pink bow tie and serving drinks to rich partygoers. A crappy job, to be sure. But he found solace with a cute co-worker named Casey (Lizzy Caplan), a fellow struggling actor who shared his bored, sarcastic, gimlet-eyed view of their circumstances.
This is actually the one time I’ll celebrate Hollywood’s obsession with reincarnating old IP. When so much of TV’s output lately has been focused on crime or wealth — or the criminally wealthy (an oxymoron?) — it’s a breath of fresh air any time we get a show told from the point of view of working stiffs.
Rewatching “Party Down’s” original episodes recently, I was surprised to realize how much the show mirrors “The Office.” It may have a Hollywood backdrop, but the basics are all there: A bumbling, overeager boss (Ken Marino as Ron Donald, a man who buys into every bootstrap myth imaginable, to no avail) and a workforce of barely competent eccentrics who couldn’t give a toss about the job. All of it is anchored by Scott’s very Jim Halpert-like performance. He’s too cool to be here. Except, no, actually he’s not.
Add in Roman, the resident malcontent incel and aspiring screenwriter (Martin Starr); Kyle, the easygoing himbo model/actor (Ryan Hansen); plus a rotating cast of wild cards played first by Jane Lynch, then Jennifer Coolidge, then Megan Mullally.
So here we are, more than a decade later, and the old gang is back (how sad!) with one exception: Caplan’s scheduling conflicts mean Casey is nowhere to be seen. The character found success on “Saturday Night Live” we’re told — “doing quips and zingers on some dumb show for boomer fascists,” as Roman puts it — and is now living her best life elsewhere, leaving all her catering pals in the dust. It’s not a bad twist. Henry has moved on, too — he’s a high school English teacher — but a recent divorce has him in financial straits, so he’s back in that pink bow tie moonlighting at his old job. Except now he’s fully middle-aged and this reeks of failure in a way it didn’t when he first quit acting all those years back. Will the humiliation never end?
Well, maybe the addition of Jennifer Garner as a successful movie producer and love interest will help. She takes a liking to Henry and is laid back enough to be charmed by his deadpan rapport and general life messiness. Do I buy that a Hollywood producer would overlook their status gap to forge a real connection between mature adults? Not really, but Garner is fun company and that’s enough.
Her presence also means the show’s writers have invited someone rich into this hermetic, disgruntled world and that feels like a betrayal of something essential about the “Party Down” ethos: The clients exist to be mocked behind their backs and have their medicine cabinets raided, but never to be taken seriously.
Replacing the Casey-sized hole in the show are two new Party Down employees, and their addition makes the team not so blindingly white this time out. Tyrel Jackson Williams is the sole Gen-Z employee and he carries a ring light around with him everywhere, just in case there’s an opportunity to make content. His older co-workers struggle to understand what his “craft” actually is (content!) but even the show doesn’t have a clear idea of what his long-term goals might be, which makes the character seem underwritten.
Zoë Chao also joins the cast as the Party Down chef — a new position that didn’t exist in the show’s previous incarnation — who takes a very intense and experimental approach to her job. Her cake bites are a “rumination on mortality” and she’s annoyed that Ron wants the food to actually taste good. How banal! By virtue of her job, though, she’s not really one of the gang.
New characters can, and should, breathe life into any revival. What’s missing here is a sense of camaraderie — everyone united by the crappiness of the job — that once worked as a binding agent.
Just generally, there’s not enough of a kindred spirit for Henry to bounce off of (what Casey once brought to the table) or an overall wisecracking esprit de corps. Consider this weirdly priceless exchange from the original run: Coolidge’s character is talking about the time she auditioned for “Cannonball Run II” (the reference itself is a good joke!): “Do you know what I did to the girl I was up against?” Henry mumbles that he doesn’t even want to know.
“I hit her with my car.”
“And it felt right!”
That kind of batty, nonsequitur chatter is what always drew me in and there’s not quite enough of it in the new episodes.
Speaking of Coolidge, she doesn’t make a reappearance. But Lynch and Mullally do and they’re both wonderfully spacey and self-centered — Lynch’s character is now a wealthy widow (per canon; the Season 2 finale saw her getting married and her groom promptly dropping dead) and Mullally is a stage mom who is only belatedly realizing that being a child star isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. They’re both chaos agents who are simultaneously well-intentioned and amusingly out-of-touch. There are also famous guest stars aplenty: Quinta Brunson! Nick Offerman! James Marsden!
Created by Rob Thomas, John Enbom, Dan Etheridge and the actor Paul Rudd (who was originally supposed to star and then dropped out because of a conflict), the show at its best generates such a happy-go-lucky absurdity amid the ego-smashing reality of anyone struggling to find a foothold in showbiz.
But it’s actually Ron’s story — of an everyman who doesn’t want to be famous, he just wants modest success in business — that feels most potent to me. Nobody plays a big galoot better than Marino and Ron can be profoundly annoying and ridiculous, the worst of the try-hards. But he’s such a tragic figure in ways that hit me in the gut.
The early months of the pandemic saw Ron bottom out. He was (and still is) living in the catering van and taking any gig he could: “Secret weddings, illegal poker tournaments, goth raves, unpermitted underground brisses, anything to keep Party Down afloat.”
“I got COVID four times, which is fine. You know me, I’m all about the grind.”
3 stars (out of 4)
How to watch: 9 p.m. ET Fridays on Starz