TV Review: ‘Party Down’

03.19.09 9 years ago


An estimated 17 people watched Wednesday night’s premiere of the very funny (albeit uneven) “Better Off Ted.” That figure is plus-or-minus 5.64 million, but that still isn’t very impressive. I mean, CBS could air a four-year-old repeat of “Two and a Half Men” against the Super Bowl, a televised execution, an Elvis Presley comeback special and a “Seinfeld” reunion and still draw twice that many viewers. Meanwhile, you’ll still see people online complaining that there are no good comedies on TV. 

Of course, if Starz draws 5.64 million viewers for Friday’s series premiere of “Party Down,” every one of the company’s employees will hold a naked, ticker-tape parade down the most crowded urban street they can find, throwing diamonds and Mardi Gras beads to the assembled crowds with reckless abandon.

Starz had had several original scripted programs in the past, but “Party Down” is the first one I’ve been able to watch. “Head Cases” has always seemed funny in clips, but tiresome in episodic form, while “Crash” also seemed hilarious in clips, but proved nauseating in episodic form.

“Party Down,” though, is just loose and funny and likable with a cast of comic talents good enough to front shows on a major network, if the major networks were actually invested in making sitcoms. It’s appropriate that any network that wanted it probably could have had “Party Down,” but their loss is Starz’ gain.

[More after the break…]

“Party Down” is a show about what young people living the dream in Los Angeles do while waiting for the dream to become a reality, or after they wake up from the dream and realize that it was a nightmare. In this economy, “Party Down” ought to strike a chord, because it’s about smart, attractive, creative people — like you, dear reader! — who work demeaning, low-paying jobs servicing insufferable twits who can afford an open bar and unlimited cocktail weenies. It’s about making ends meet, but never letting your job define you.

More literally, it’s about a sextet of cater-waiters — bartenders, videographers, hosts and hostesses — who work events in and around Los Angeles when they aren’t doing stand-up, pitching scripts, auditioning for pilots or living off of the residuals of that one national commercial they did five years ago. If you lived in Los Angeles, you’d know all of these people. 

And if you watch TV, you know everybody in the cast, which includes Ken Marino (“Veronica Mars”), Ryan Hansen (“Veronica Mars”), Adam Scott (“Tell Me You Love Me”), Jane Lynch (The Christopher Guest Fun Factory), Martin Starr (The Judd Apatow Fun Factory) and Lizzy Caplan (“The Class”). Guest stars in the episodes I’ve seen include Enrico Colantoni, Jason Dohring and Ed Begley Jr. 

That’s a lot of star wattage for a tiny Starz comedy series, but “Party Down” comes from Rob Thomas, Paul Rudd, John Enbom and Dan Etheridge, who deliver plenty of clout.

They also deliver plenty of humor. If you’ve ever worked in a service industry, you’ll recognize the essential truth of the show’s situations, the ethical quandaries of how you wait on people you don’t respect, how you treat unruly customers, how you tolerate co-workers who, like you, would rather be anywhere else doing anything else, how you add humor or creative flair to the daily drudgery. 

“Party Down” does much better with the relatable, observational humor than when it goes for lowest-common-denominator schtick, but it tries having it both ways. So in the pilot you get Starr’s pretentious aspiring screenwriter making running references to “Repo Man,” but you also get a masturbation gag built around a stain remover stick. You get the near-existential debate about whether or not to put out a tip jar, but you also get to see more of Colantoni than you’ve ever hoped to see.

The character bits work because all of the actors play to their strengths. Caplan does caustic and sarcastic. Starr does obviously over-intellectual. Hansen does charmingly distasteful. Scott goes all Quizzical Everyman. And when things get too quiet, Lynch does something utterly berserk. While not exactly the hero of the story (that’s probably Scott), Marino is its centerpiece, a Michael Scott-style character who has become a boss by attrition, rather than by accumulating any sort of leadership skills, a character prone to saying the wrong thing and doing the wrong thing whenever possible.

It is, in fact, an entire cast of people who, over the years, I’ve thought, “Why can’t somebody build a show around that person?” Put together, it’s an ensemble that should be kept together until somebody (Caplan would be my best guess) gets a bigger, better offer.

There are small personal details that carry through from episode to episode — the flirtation between Caplan and Scott’s characters, the escalating prank war between Starr and Hansen’s characters — but the episodes themselves are self-contained. Each episode puts the cater-waiters in the middle of a different ridiculous gathering, be it a neighborhood association meeting, a party for college Young Republicans or a mixer for sexually adventurous seniors. That allows the rotating guest cast to remain evergreen and lets Thomas and company bring in as many old friends as can make the time. 

The goofballs throwing the party are, comedically speaking, pretty low-hanging fruit. Bourgie Soulless Suburbanites? Hypocritical Right Wingers? Randy Viagra Poppers? Those are broad targets indeed, but the first two episodes work well because of guest stars Colantoni in the premiere and Dohring, Josh Gad and Ryan Pinkston, while the third episode just feels too obvious. It’s also possible that I tired of the third episode because Jane Lynch is best as a condiment rather than as a main dish.

But if finding its comedic balance is going to be the biggest problem for “Party Down,” hitting on two of its first three episodes is a solid start. By keeping this cast and this creative team intact, Starz may have found a comedy to build around. 

As I’ve said, that’s two new promising comedies in one week. Now the trick is going to be getting people to watch them.

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