Previously on Party Down: It’s been 13 years! When this show originally aired, yours truly was catering as a side hustle, rubbing elbows with a rotating cast of coworkers whose hearts, like mine, were elsewhere. We were canapé-toting dreamers in wrinkled button-downs, gossiping in the kitchen and occasionally finding ourselves pouring a glass of Beaujolais Nouveau for a faded pop star or former mayor. The only thing we had in common was that we all needed to make some extra cash.
The Starz series spoke to me back then because it felt so true to life as a cater waiter, the kind of survival job that brings in people from all walks of life. But like any great workplace comedy, you didn’t have to be in the business to get it. When it premiered in 2009, Party Down struck just the right tone for the Great Recession era: cynical yet sincere, wry yet big-hearted, nihilistic yet hopeful. Like the show’s crew of has-beens, wannabes, and never-weres, we were all lying in the gutter, covered in shit but gazing up at the stars.
The series itself fell prey to downsizing after only two seasons, and its ridiculously talented stars went on to make their names in higher-profile shows like Glee, Parks And Recreation, Masters Of Sex, and Silicon Valley. But the show’s steadfast fans never gave up the dream—all the way up to our modern era, when beloved canceled-too-soon series rise from the dead faster than you can say, “Are we having fun yet?!”
Against all odds, Party Down is back for a third season, with its creators (John Enbom, Dan Etheridge, Rob Thomas, and Paul Rudd) still at the helm and its original cast mostly intact. And since it turns out 2023 is somehow even worse than 2009 was, the gang is still in the gutter—only this time, they’re face-down in the shit.
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But at least when we first see them again, the gang seems to be better off. Party Down Catering is still in business, which is more than you can say for most L.A. food-service companies. Ron Donald (Ken Marino) is still team leader, sporting his signature Poindexter haircut and bubblegum-pink necktie. He’s trying and failing to get his team of fresh-faced young caterers pumped up about “circulating ’dervs.” The only holdout from the old days is Roman (Martin Starr), looking exactly as put-upon in his forties as he did in his twenties.
This week’s client is none other than Kyle (Ryan Hansen), whose preening himbo tendencies have finally taken him all the way to the top. He’s just booked the title role in Nitromancer: Dimensions—the latest film in Party Down’s impressively detailed sendup of the MCU. And he’s invited the whole gang to celebrate. Lydia (Megan Mullally) is still managing her daughter Escapade’s career, hurling insults at hapless talent execs over the phone (“You’re a sloppy, flopped-out pig’s anus!”). When we last saw Constance (Jane Lynch) in the season-two finale, Party Down was catering her wedding to a wealthy, ailing production mogul. He’s dead now, and she’s filthy rich, using her cash to bankroll emerging artists, whether they need to book the Geffen or acquire a shark carcass. (“The thing they don’t tell you about inheriting a huge amount of money is the positive side,” she tells Roman. “I found it very freeing.”)
And then there’s our boy Henry Pollard (Adam Scott), the dark heart of Party Down’s maelstrom. Though you’d never know it from his thousand-yard stare, things could be going a lot worse: He’s found steady work as an English teacher and has recently bought a house with his wife, whom we only meet via Henry’s side of their rushed phone conversations.
Ron is dancing on air as he fills Henry in on his latest scheme: He’s going to buy Party Down outright, a dream he’s grown to cherish even more dearly than managing a Soup ’R Crackers. And there’s something so bittersweet about watching these two bounce off each other. Henry has grown into what society would consider a model adult, leaving behind childish things like his acting ambitions and his survival job. Ron, on the other hand, is in the exact same mental and professional place he was 10 years ago, but his giddy passion for catering has never dimmed. Though his vision is a silly one, at least he’s on the verge of achieving it.
But as soon as he declares, “If you work hard, the system pays off!” we know he’s doomed. Sure enough, Ron’s shoddy lawyer delivers the news that there’s a lien against Party Down, and the sale will be void unless he can rustle up $10,000 by midnight. He finds an angel in the form of Evie Adler (Jennifer Garner), a Nitromancer producer who just so happens to be dating Jack Botty (James Marsden), a wealthy idiot who loves the restaurant industry. But when Ron’s pitch goes south, he turns to Constance, an idiot so wealthy that she thinks “10 grand” means $10 million.
Despite being the man of the hour, Kyle is having the worst night of anyone. A video is making the rounds on Twitter of his former band, Karma Rocket, performing at Constance’s wedding all those years ago. If you’ve revisited that episode recently, you’ll recall that the song Kyle belted out was a rock ballad about making it in Hollywood that actually sounds like a paean to Nazism called, yes, “My Struggle.”
He doesn’t get what all the fuss is about, but he enlists Sackson (Tyrel Jackson Williams), Party Down’s most Gen-Z employee, to help him film an apology video that never makes it to Twitter. By the end of the evening, Kyle has gotten himself canceled, and his agent (Quinta Brunson) has found a different actor to play Nitromancer. Turns out it was all an elaborate revenge scheme cooked up by Karma Rocket’s onetime lead guitarist, Miles (Fran Kranz), an aging, embittered hipster who claims he invented alternative indie rock. (Step aside, Neutral Milk Hotel!)
Henry’s spiral is a subtler one—a slow fall into melancholy as the night progresses. Maybe it’s because the tagline from a beer commercial he filmed decades ago still haunts him everywhere he goes; maybe it’s because he keeps getting reminders that his old flame Casey (Lizzy Caplan) has long since hit it big and left him in the dust; or maybe it’s because he keeps talking to Roman, the human equivalent of a little gray cloud.
We know Henry’s going to tank the stable little life he’s built the moment he fishes a half-finished pack of cigarettes out of the trash and chain-smokes in the back alley while Ron slams his fists into the Party Down van. There is a flicker of something, however, between Henry and Evie. I’m not ready to root for them just yet, but let’s see where the season takes us.
Nowhere to go but up from here, right? Ron sure thinks so: “It’s an amazing feeling to know that, for a fact, this year, 2020, is going to be the best year of my life.” It’s Henry who clocks the breaking news alert on the bar TV—a brief item about potential Nitromancer production delays due to something called the…novel coronavirus?
TV revivals rarely stick the landing; it’s all too easy for them to come off as thin shadows of what they once were. But Party Down’s stacked cast hasn’t missed a beat, and neither have its writers. It’s still a grim, laugh-out-loud exploration of life on the raggedy edges of Hollywood, asking us to consider whether it’s better to give up for the sake of your sanity or keep chasing your deeply embarrassing dreams.
- In the mid-credits scene, Ron emerges from his van 14 months later, shaggy-haired and barefoot in boxers and a ratty T-shirt, to answer a call for a potential catering gig. Nature is healing.
- When Henry is trying to convince the bouncer that, yes, he is an invited guest, he mentions that he and Kyle used to work together at Party Down. “Never heard of it,” the bouncer replies. “Is it on cable or something?”
- Since a scheduling conflict prevented Caplan from joining the reboot, the writers explain away Casey’s absence by making her the one Party Down alum to truly hit it big: She landed a spot on SNL a decade before, and is now starring on a network crime drama in New York. Though Caplan’s wisecracking, acerbic presence—not to mention her raw-edged chemistry with Scott—was sorely missed, the series smartly uses Casey’s success to push Henry deeper into his dissatisfaction.
- Constance and Lydia bemoan the fact that Henry and Casey won’t be reuniting behalf of…Kashenry? Hasey?…shippers everywhere. (“I was hoping they’d hook up for old time’s sake.” “You know, I always rooted for them as a couple.”) Roman is there to pour out the cold water: “Why? Because they hooked up 10 years ago on and off on a shit job? Why not root against them?”
- It’s clear that the writers had a blast coming up with names for things in their fake MCU: Guardians: Infinity Sticks, Max America, the Eternity Rhombus, Defenders: Wormhole, and, of course, Guyote.
- Enbom and company have no trouble breathing life back into the characters we’ve known from the beginning. But season three’s major additions, Sackson and Evie, are both pretty one-note so far. But considering how much the season premiere had to pack in, there’s still plenty of time for these two to grow.
- Sight gag of the week: Ron casually lifting his hand into frame to reveal that his pinky is bent fully horizontal from using the van door as a punching bag. No worries, though: He’ll fix it right up with a little masking tape.
- I am begging Andrew Lloyd Webber to please not actually write More Cats.