A strange thing is happening with “Party Down.”
The second season of the beloved Starz comedy hasn’t even premiered, but fans have already moved past the 10 unaired episodes and begun to lament the show’s future. That’s not a totally inappropriate reaction. “Party Down” has already lost Jane Lynch to “Glee” and while Adam Scott is still in the second season, he’s departed for “Parks and Recreation.” Depending on how the vagaries of the pilot process go, Lizzy Caplan and Ryan Hansen could possibly be gone as well.
I’m not worried. Well, I’m plenty worried. “Party Down” wasn’t a hit in its first season and it’s the product of a previous creative administration at Starz, so renewal was never going to be a sure thing. I happen to think, though, that as fantastic as the “Party Down” cast is, the show’s renewable star is the simple premise created and orchestrated by John Enbom, Rob Thomas, Dan Etheridge and the rest of the creative team. As long as Los Angeles has dreamers stuck in dead-end jobs and as long as Los Angeles has filthy rich nutjobs willing to pay them for services rendered, “Party Down” will always have a creative kernel in place.
And putting aside the future of “Party Down” for just a second (or, perhaps, for a full review), it’s a relief to say that the present of “Party Down” is on solid footing. Part of the upper echelon of TV comedies last spring, “Party Down” returns to Starz on Friday (April 23) with its quality mostly intact, no easy feat when you lose a co-star as talented as Lynch.
Full review of the start of the “Party Down” second season after the break…
When we left our “Party Down” cater-waiters, Ken Marino’s Ron had left to fulfill his lifelong dream of opening a Super ‘r Crackers franchise, while Casey (Lizzy Caplan) had departed for a comedy cruise and Kyle (Ryan Hansen) had lined up a lead role in a sure-to-be-huge base-jumping movie.
That left Henry (Adam Scott), finally at peace over the demise of his acting career, in charge of the crew.
That’s pretty much where we picked up, although nine months have passed, which is enough time for Kyle to still be very much on the job and for the gang to have added a new member, Megan Mullally’s Lydia. If you’re wondering how much time it takes for Ron and Casey to get pulled back into the fold, the answer is “none,” though I’ll leave the big surprises (that’s a joke, since that’s not really the kind of show “Party Down” is) for you to discover.
“Party Down” is a show that’s all about the comedic rhythms between the castmembers and I personally thought that the first season took a while to progress from decent to near-great. The early season included iffy episodes like “Pepper McMasters Singles Seminar” and “Investors Dinner, but then you got “Sin-Say-Shun Awards Afterparty” and “Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh” and the show was in gear.
Similarly, I’d say that of the five Season Two episodes made available for critics, the first two — “Jackal Onasis Backstage Party” and “Precious Lights Pre-School Auction” — are easily the weakest. In this case, “weakest” is relative, since the premiere includes an inspired guest appearance by the ever-excellent Jimmi Simpson as a goth rocker who’s every bit as disillusioned with his job as the waiters are with theirs, while the second episode includes the return of J.K. Simmons, who also appeared in the first season’s excellent “Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen Party.” This season’s transitional episode is the third, “Nick Dicintio”s Orgy Night,” guest starring Thomas Lennon. From there, the next two are terrific stuff, culminating in “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday,” which Starz has inexplicably already made available on the network website.
The roughness of the early episodes is a product of “Party Down” making a few minor character transitions that don’t pay off immediately, but eventually find their footing. There’s good comedy to be mined from reversing Ron and Henry’s roles, letting Marino play the distracted goof-off and Scott to try to play Henry’s new mixture of apathy and efficiency. Similarly, pushing Ron and Casey apart for a while restores the excellent chemistry between Caplan and Scott.
It’s going to apparently take even longer than five episodes for “Party Down” to figure out what to do with Mullally. So far, we’ve gone through a lot of episodes with Lydia contributing nothing more amusing than an unseen daughter named Escapade. Jane Lynch was an integral part of the show in the first season, but when her Constance exited abruptly for the last two episodes, Jennifer Coolidge’s Bobbie was introduced seamlessly. I’m not quite sure why Coolidge wasn’t just retained for the second season, given Mullally’s negligible early value. [Sepinwall tells me that Mullally improves in the season’s second half. I haven’t seen those episodes and I’ve never really been a Mullally fan anyway, so I’ll have to see that improvement to believe it.]
The show’s most reliable comedic pairing remains Hansen’s Kyle and Martin Starr’s Roman. The head-butting and exasperation between the aspiring himbo thespian and the pretentious writer of “hard science fiction” fuels some of the show’s smartest and most insider comic ranting, peaking in the Guttenberg episode, when we finally get to experience Roman’s screenwriting first-hand.
[I should point out that the version of Steven Guttenberg that Steven Guttenberg is playing in the Steven Guttenberg episode of “Party Down,” is possibly less funny and ridiculous than the actual version of Steven Guttenberg that Steven Guttenberg plays at parties and press events promoting Steve Guttenberg vehicles, when Steve Guttenberg happens to have Steve Guttenberg vehicles to promote. I’m really only mentioning this as an excuse to link to my “Finding Wisdom in Steve Guttenberg’s Bible,” a seminal article from my Zap2it career, an article that no longer actually exists at Zap2it. Even if you aren’t a “Party Down” fan or a Steve Guttenberg fan, I strongly recommend the article.]
The humor in “Party Down” is character-driven, but also full of pop culture goodies, with references ranging from “Snow Crash” and Ayn Rand to “Big Bang Theory” and “The Mentalist” to “Eyes Wide Shut” and “Boys From Brazil.” It’s a show that can find laughs in a semiotic deconstruction of the phrase “jungle fever,” but also in Steven Guttenberg discussing his testicles. It’s diverse. And the writing, which simulates the illusion of off-the-cuff improv while being, by all accounts, tightly scripted, has been matched flawlessly to the individual comic talents of what is an exceptional cast.
It’s the consistency of the writing that leaves me pretty sure that if Starz wanted “Party Down” back, it would be able to withstand the loss of many of its current stars. That shouldn’t take anything away from the “Party Down” topliners, especially Scott and Caplan, who are more than just the straight-men around whom the hilarity spins. When it comes to sardonic comic timing, they’re both pretty masterful. Scott will be a perfect addition to “Parks and Recreation” and Caplan has been a star-in-the-making since “Freaks and Geeks,” “Related” and “The Class.”
I wouldn’t want to jump ship and follow a whole new group of caterers, but if you kept Marino and Starr as anchors, I’d have faith that there are enough underemployed “Veronica Mars,” Apatow, “The State” or Derrick Comedy veterans out there to repopulate as much as required. As long as the writers remained attached, I can imagine versions of “Party Down” that would be every bit (nearly every bit?) as good and probably cheaper for Starz.
In fact, that sounds like a fun game… What underutilized-yet-versatile comic actors would you like to see in an imaginary third season of “Party Down”? Think about the future!
Or, you can just concentrate on the present and tune in for Season Two of “Party Down,” premiering on Friday night on Starz.