In 2009, Party Down felt like lightning in a bottle: an ensemble comedy starring some of the heaviest hitters in the industry, created by Veronica Mars genius Rob Thomas (no, not that Rob Thomas), alongside John Enbom, Dan Etheridge, and Paul Rudd (yes, that Paul Rudd). The show, which ran for two seasons on Starz, told the story of a group of cater waiters in Los Angeles, budding, embittered creative types struggling to make ends meet in a town that hates them. You had a pre-Parks and Recreation Adam Scott, with a post-Mean Girls Lizzy Caplan, alongside pre-Silicon Valley Martin Starr and post-Veronica Mars Ryan Hansen, not to mention a pre-Glee Jane Lynch and perpetual genius (and former member of The State) Ken Marino.
Party Down gained a dedicated cult following, but ended its run prematurely as its talent got scooped up elsewhere. I recall it being what felt like an ingenious discovery in the early days of streaming: my college housemates and I had never seen a sitcom that felt so in tune with our referential, silly sense of humor. It helped, too, that Party Down was not too plot-driven — like the sitcom days of yore, it was mostly about the vibes and the workplace, each episode focused on a different event. We rarely, if ever, saw the Party Down crew out of work, negating their existence outside of their menial jobs. This is the anxiety for many in the service industry: frequently degraded and often underpaid, these workers fear that their customers — their rude, insane, demanding customers — will never see them as anything more than that. Party Down’s ragtag group of caterers were delusional in their own sense, but never crazier than any of the people they worked for.
The show is now back for a limited six-episode run on Starz after years of fan-led canvassing. This has often been a reaction to Thomas’ work, as Veronica Mars eventually parlayed itself into a fan-funded movie several years after its initial run (and later, a Hulu revival of its own). In many ways, it seems like the perfect time for a show like Party Down to return; after all, who has been in the throes of society’s ugliest conversations or worse conditions over the past few years than food service workers? But the new Party Down episodes, perhaps to their detriment, only want to deal with the COVID of it all to a point. The first new episode serves as a prologue to the series, set in March 2020 and full of “2020 is gonna be my year” altruisms. If only they knew! But later episodes glide right over the pandemic almost entirely.
Since we last saw them, Marino’s Ron is building out his Party Down catering service, with Roman (Starr) as one of few remaining employees under his tenure. Henry (Scott) is now a high school teacher, married to an off-screen woman with some off-screen kids. He’s classically miserable, both to have given up on his acting dream and also because he’s always like that. Caplan’s Casey doesn’t return for these new episodes, though she’s never far from Henry’s mind: an SNL cast member and a tabloid fixture, we’re always hearing about her on the news. Lydia (Lynch) and Constance (Megan Mullally) are back, the former newly married to a rich older man and the latter still hyperfocused on her daughter Escapade’s career. The season premiere is almost a stand-alone experience, a prologue, so to speak, as the gang reunites to celebrate Kyle (Hansen), who has just been cast as “Nitromancer” in some new big superhero slop, primed to make it big.
Something always goes wrong at a Party Down party: embittered about his forthcoming fame, a member of Kyle’s old band Karma Rocket leaks footage of Kyle singing their song “My Struggle,” which is rife with unintentional references to the Holocaust. This would be a funny and surprising reveal, if only longtime fans didn’t remember that “My Struggle” was already a significant part of the season’s first run. Kyle’s insistence that it’s all a coincidence — that the references to being “put on a train” and “assigned a number” are about Hollywood — is funny, if not familiar. With Kyle once again working at Party Down, soon to be followed by Henry, the gang is now back to their old catering gigs, like nothing ever changed.
In fact, many of the new episodes of Party Down feel familiar, the show content to play the hits a dozen or so years since their first play. The group caters a freaky neo-conservative event in the third episode, “First Annual PI2A Symposium,” that harkens back to the first season’s “California College Conservative Union Caucus.” There’s an extended mushroom trip in the fourth episode, “KSGY-95 Prizewinner’s Luau,” that harkens back to the first season’s “Sin Say Shun Awards Afterparty.” The rampant familiarity of these new episodes is both a feature and a bug. At its best, Party Down spun its wheels: The whole joke was that these people were never going to go anywhere or do anything, and their striving is something to be mocked. Their anxieties — not good enough, not hot enough, not competent enough to run a Soup’r Crackers — were exposed over and over again to the benefit of only their customers. It was dark, frustrating, and ruthlessly funny. But the new episodes are less focused on the monotony of the work, too stuffed with loosely connected plottiness and a halfhearted attempt to make fun of how Hollywood is now. Things have changed, but they also haven’t; more of the same does not necessarily imply sharper commentary.
In part, that’s due to a handful of the new characters introduced by the show: Sackson (Tyrel Jackson Williams) and Lucy (Zoë Chao) are recent Party Down hires, the former a “content creator” and the latter a nouveau gastronomy type. Though Williams is high-energy and undeniably funny, Party Down doesn’t have all that much to say about the fact that being on TikTok is a job other than “Isn’t that crazy?” and “Aren’t the dances so stupid?” There’s a tacit acceptance that posting is, for some, labor, with little more investigation than that (including the oft-mentioned but rarely discussed fact that Roman is now a YouTuber, apparently). Lucy, similarly, feels one-note and observed, a gourmand in search of an audience who will appreciate her disgusting, avant-garde cuisine. Every episode she conjures up a new gross treat, only to feel dejected when Ron scolds her for forgoing cake pops or whatever trite food is required of them.
Both Williams and Chao bring a fun energy to the group and it’s good to see the show make an attempt to diversify its otherwise very white cast, but it’s clear the writers are not sure how to enmesh them with the returning cast. Party Down can’t decide if being a full-time content creator is a worthy job, nor can it determine how a person with integrity in food service could be a caterer (though there are plenty of TikTok-famous personal chefs doing OK in Los Angeles, according to my feed). The jokes in Party Down were less about the nature of the job itself and more the ambition that drives it, but it’s hard to see why either Sackson or Lucy have wound up with this gig they feel is beneath them.
The other significant addition to the show is Evie (Jennifer Garner), a hotshot producer who takes an interest in Henry. Party Down doesn’t want Garner to take over for Caplan, but she’s a tough fit within the cast. Garner is a game and eager performer — I’m never mad to see her show up — but an odd match with the ever-sardonic Scott. It’s hard to know where their storyline is going, having only seen the first five of six episodes, and knowing Party Down’s oft-sadistic tone, it’s likely nowhere good. But her inclusion is proof that the series is more intent on commenting on Hollywood, the cruel, casual indifference of the industry, than it is its food service workers. Not to mention, the dynamic between Evie and Henry is largely, regrettably, pretty boring.
That the show skips from March 2020 to sometime in the late summer or early fall of 2021 overlooks much of the roughest parts of the pandemic for workers, only ever making note that Ron worked through it, suffering from COVID multiple times, his various side effects popping up when most comically effective (and in Marino’s hands, very much so). Party Down was never strictly Hollywood or service industry commentary, but its return is so steeped in the unfairness and inequity of an ever-similar Hollywood that it forgets an industry that was wholly ruptured over the past few years. That the new episodes feel so similar to the old ones is not a disappointment because we look to the show for embittered catharsis, but it’s not telling us anything about a flawed industry put wholly on display for its savagery since the show first went off the air. If comedy in general “hits different” in a post-pandemic world, why lean into such familiar beats?
In a crowded landscape of reboots and revivals, the new Party Down episodes are neither the worst of the worst nor the best of the best. This is still one of the best casts in ages, full of performers who have not lost their edge. Marino, in particular, is a welcome presence in the television landscape, one of the most adept, manic, and original comedic actors of a generation. Ron Donald, too, is a creation for the ages. I could watch him scream forever, and part of what I realized watching this latest season is that he probably will. These new episodes will delight those who have missed the undeniably entertaining, inane pitter-patter of the show. That was the secret to Party Down the show and Party Down the company: This work was always supposed to be a filler job for these characters, eager to move on to something else. That these characters remain stuck in a revival, shiny and glossy and cheap and miserable, feels like the kind of thing the original Party Down would be content to skewer. That the world around Party Down seems just as bleak and unforgiving as it did a dozen or so years ago is not their fault; the definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over, hoping for a different result.