Way back on the second-ever episode of Party Down, the gang catered an event for a group of young Republicans with bad neckties and worse dreams. The biggest argument these guys had was over whether presenting a box of Cuban cigars to Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger would make them look like communists.
Cut to the latest episode, and the conversation has evolved (or rather, devolved) in reactionary U.S. politics. Among the attendees of an alt-right conference, the debate isn’t about the optics of gift-giving; it’s about whether conservatives should openly glorify Hitler or secretly glorify Hitler. Welcome to the 2020s!
Series co-creator John Enbom penned the scripts for both “California College Conservative Union Caucus” and “First Annual PI2A Symposium,” bookending an era that saw right-wing politics metastasize into something grotesque. Though the 2023 Party Down team makes no bones about calling their clients Nazis, they’re almost as nonplussed as they were about the budding neocons they served back in 2009. And much like Lucy’s swine butter and shaved granite raclettes, “First Annual PI2A Symposium” leaves a strange taste in your mouth.
The caterers find out too late what kind of gig Ron has booked them for. Lucy’s not having it: “Do you have no morals?!” Ron, as usual, is blinded by dollar signs and desperation: “Morals? What does that have to do with anything? This is just business!”
The gang begrudgingly agrees to go through with the event for reasons that are, weirdly, all about their cars: Ron has to make a payment ASAP on his beloved van so it doesn’t get repossessed; alarming screeching sounds are issuing from the hood of Henry’s Honda Civic; and Roman and Sackson are having a pissing contest over whether the income of a sci-fi vlogger or a TikTok influencer can score you a nicer ride. Kyle, meanwhile, just wants Henry to give him a crash course in Shakespearean acting. And yes, he is auditioning to play the lead in an “edgy” production of Othello. (“Everybody else is Black; Othello is white. That’s why it’s not racist.”)
The ringmaster of PI2A—a hilariously terrible acronym for “Policy Ideas 2 Action”—is Stuart Glueberd (Calum Worthy), the kind of guy whose smiles are all white teeth and dead eyes. For the event to go off without a hitch, he would very much like his presenters to speak in dog whistles. “We are a new group building a conservative politics based on open-minded, good-faith debate in an open marketplace of ideas!” he tells the caterers.
Then there’s Dermott, a man who loves molecular gastronomy, mock turtlenecks, and talking about how Hitler “gets a bad rap.” The most significant thing about the character is that he’s played by Nick Offerman, making a 180 after breaking all our hearts on The Last Of Us a few weeks back. The actor uses his innate charm and papa-bear reliability to unnerving effect in the role—sort of like a charismatic dictator might. But it’s alarming that this guy comes off as the calm voice of reason in the episode (more on that later).
When a small cadre of protesters materializes in front of the venue, Stuart jumps at the chance to get some press. Meanwhile, Kyle sees an opportunity to make over his image in the wake of his own (accidental) Nazi scandal. He rips off his bowtie and goes outside to join the demonstration, Henry’s Shakespeare For Teens textbook in tow. “I’ll just, like, yell stuff or do some hand gestures,” he tells the group.
About those protesters: There’s something very fishy about them, from the slogans on their signs (“Mediocre white men can’t jump,” “Hate is bad!”) to their outfits, which run the gamut from Halloween store hippie to Halloween store Antifa. When Stuart addresses the crowd (while live-streaming), the protesters begin chanting, “Fuck free speech!”
Of course, these guys are as fake as their getups; it’s all a ruse Stuart cooked up to garner publicity for PI2A. They’re easily unmasked when the Rowdy Boys (Party Down’s version of the Proud Boys) launch a very real attack on the protesters. It’s Kyle, ironically, who takes an actual stand against these guys. Sure, he starts out dance-fighting (which Ryan Hansen performs to maximum effect); but he soon leaps fists-first into the fray, earning a bloody face for his troubles. He’s doing it because he’s caught up in a narcissistic vision of himself as the superhero he almost got to play. But Enbom seems to be asking us: Do motives matter if the optics work?
Henry, meanwhile, is too busy juggling the circumstances of his messy life to bother with moral outrage. He’s in the weeds with directing a high school production of ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore—a play, he emphasizes, he did not choose—and his alimony payments are draining him dry. He’s trying to hide the chaos from Evie, whom he had a very good date with over the weekend. (No will-they-won’t-they here; they will!)
His attempts at compartmentalization fail thanks to a complicated string of events that scream “orchestrated by a writers’ room.” Ultimately, Evie and two of his students—Cloris (Galilea La Salvia) and Riley (Christina Offley)—wind up in the venue’s kitchen, giving Henry an opening to make amends.
The best scene in “First Annual PI2A Symposium” comes when our bedraggled hero opens up to his pupils about his industry past; we get a rare glimpse into the passion that drove him to acting all those years ago before the light went out of his eyes. “This was always interesting to me as an actor: good or bad or whatever, just, y’know, finding that piece of humanity in the character that the audience connects with.” This hidden wellspring of empathy is what makes Henry a good bartender—and a good person—despite his misanthropy and nihilism. Still, the girls have their doubts about the value of “a bunch of pretending.”
When Stuart (taking a page from Trump) tells Ron he can’t pay right now thanks to the damage the Rowdy Boys did to the venue, Henry’s acting chops save the day. “You’re looking a common man in the eyes right now and totally fucking him over,” he says tearily, turning Stuart’s own empty platitudes back on him. Dermott agrees to foot the bill in exchange for PI2A giving him free reign to extoll the virtues of Hitler in his presentation.
Henry breaks character as soon as they’ve left, brandishing his fat check and announcing to the girls, “See? Pretend.” What he doesn’t tell them is that playing pretend isn’t just going to serve them in theater, but in adult life, where everything comes down to how well you can bullshit.
Unfortunately, the rest of the episode isn’t as tight as your average Party Down. You can see the strings, as the writers find convenient ways to force the characters into position for the scenes they need to be in. Why does Sackson record his first sponcon TikTok at the front bar while wearing his dorky uniform? Why do Ron and Stuart walk into the kitchen at the exact moment Henry wraps up his inspirational speech?
But the episode’s most unsettling failing is the way it presents its cast of crypto-fascists as toothless buffoons (or, in Dermott’s case, level-headed people). And they don’t seem to be racist at all, which is something Nazis are, safe to say, pretty well-known for! Enbom & Co. do a disservice to their nonwhite characters—Sackson, Lucy, and Riley—when they’re as vaguely annoyed with their clients as their white counterparts. A scene in which Lucy’s outrage cools when she connects with Dermott over his discerning palate is particularly cringey, despite a hilarious performance from Offerman (“I had the sensation of tumbling pell-mell down the slope of the Jungfrau!”).
I know Party Down is a satire, and that TV—or any art form, for that matter—is at its least interesting when it’s moralizing. But this is less about principles than grappling with the reality of contemporary politics; and this season has been otherwise unflinching, particularly in its take on the ravages of late-stage capitalism. In the end, the episode settles on Henry’s advice to his students when it comes to playing villains: “Some people suck; but they’re still people.”
- In the mid-credits scene, Cloris and Riley show Henry how his infamous beer commercial has become meme-ified: “Rrrwee hevvin’ fun yut???” “Yeah, because my TikTok dance got a like.” “No, because I’m caught in an infinite cycle of consumption and exploitation from which escape is impossible.”
- The romantic chemistry between Henry and Evie (and by extension, Adam Scott and Jennifer Garner) is finally starting to gel. Witness Henry’s face blooming into a rare smile after they share a tender kiss in the kitchen.
- Sight gag of the week: After Lucy knocks over two trays of hors d’oeuvres in protest, Ron manages to save the third one—only to walk it straight into a doorframe.
- Sackson has landed a sponsorship deal with Wombachu, a drink tablet that, Sackson learns the hard way, blows out your digestive system. Lucy and Roman’s plan to dose the PI2A crowd goes sideways when Kyle unwittingly feeds it to the protesters—then comes back around when they turn out to be alt-righters in disguise.
- If you’re not up on your Renaissance theater history, ’Tis Pity She’s A Whore is a 1633 play by John Ford about the incestuous romance between a pair of Italian siblings that ends in one cutting out the other’s heart and parading it around on the point of a dagger. Fun!
- Though Roman is the most outspoken conscientious objector of the catering crew, Sackson takes him down a peg: Turns out the “sci-fi enthusiasts and intellectual sophisticates” that Roman says watch his vlog are actually incels, men’s rights activists, Gamergaters, and Nazis. (Frankly, it’s hard to believe that Roman isn’t on an incel subreddit or five himself.)
- I found myself really missing Constance and Lydia in this episode. Bring us your beautiful nonsense, ladies!
- In an inspired little visual gag, the Rowdy Boys’ symbol is an ostrich. Head in the sand, indeed.