I just finished the first season of Party Down, and I’ve come to the conclusion that it’s a pretty fantastic show. This kind of offbeat, often crude, sometimes mean-spirited humour would never make it onto network television, so I have to give Starz a lot of credit for allowing a show like this to exist. It’s got really distinct, funny characters, and the humour is so consistently sharp.
For those who don’t know, the show follows the lives of six people who work for a catering company in Hollywood called Party Down. The boss, Ron (Ken Marino), is a reformed party animal with aspirations of owning a “Soup R Crackers” franchise. So when his old friend, Henry (Adam Scott), comes looking for a job after his acting career permanently stalls, Ron hires him on. The other employees include an aspiring comedienne (Lizzy Caplan), a struggling actress (Jane Lynch), a delusional young actor (Ryan Hansen), and a sci-fi writer (Martin Starr). Each episode takes Party Down to a new location, and increasingly ridiculous and irreverent situations ensue.
With the different locations of each episode, it makes each instalment somewhat self-contained. Of course, there are character arcs that develop over the season and running jokes throughout, but it all happens in front of ever-changing backdrops. Since there were only ten episodes in the first season, let’s break the season down one episode at a time (Spoilers ahead, obviously, so if you haven’t watched the season, I don’t recommend reading this).
Episode 1 – Willow Canyon Homeowners Annual Party
The catering crew works a party in a repressive housing subdivision. As in most television pilots, the plot here takes a backseat to introducing the characters. But this pilot did succeed in making me laugh out loud twice (a rare thing). The “helpful gay pirate” exchange between Henry and Casey (Caplan) got me, as did this:
Casey: Thanks, new guy…I totally forgot your name.
Henry: That funny, because people usually remember it.
Casey: Why’s that?
Henry: It’s Scrotum Phillips.
Episode 2 – California College Conservative Union Caucus
While hosting a young republicans convention, Ron learns that Arnold Schwarzenegger is expected to appear, and that he is in charge of the gift they plan to give him. Unsurprisingly, things go horribly wrong with said gift. Things got a little bit too manic and over-the-top for my liking in episode two. Ron’s desperate need (and failure) to be perfect is a running theme, but here the series of unfortunate events during the party (ending with the utter desecration of an American flag) seemed a little too crazy for a show that can pull off some truly witty low-key humour.
Episode 3 – Pepper McMasters Singles Seminar
The crew works at a seniors self-help seminar where Constance (Lynch) runs into an old flame (Ed Begley Jr.). It’s not the most memorable episode overall, but the whole subplot of smoking weed in the bathroom was pretty hilarious (“Pot made his foot fall off?”). We also get the beginnings of the Henry/Casey romance in an unexpectedly unromantic way.
Episode 4 – Investors Dinner
This is definitely one of my favourite episodes. While working a party for potential big-wig investors, the crew realises that the host is planning to swindle all of his guests, and Ron. The way that they discover this is really clever, and the resolution is silly without going too over-the-top. I also really like the storyline with Kyle (Hansen), who ditches his newfound friend after seeing him being rude to Constance. The characters on Party Down can be pretty unlikeable, but it’s the little moments like this and the friendships between them that make you care about them in the end.
Episode 5 – Sin Say Shun Awards After Party
This episode relied a bit too heavily on its premise – catering the after party for an adult entertainment awards show. Ron getting caught up in some skeevy porn deal was kind of funny, but I mostly felt bad for him. I think that’s my problem with some of these episodes. Ron is a character who is relentlessly beaten down, and unless he gets some kind of vindication (which he does in some situations), I have trouble finding his humiliation funny.
Episode 6 – Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen
Probably the best episode of the season. There’s a lot going on here, but it all works, somehow. You have J.K. Simmons guest starring as an abrasively foul-mouthed father, Henry’s awkward dancing, Breckin Meyer (I really liked Josie and the Pussycats back in the day, alright?), and even a warm-hearted message about being popular (which, in true Party Down style, gets dashed by the end of the episode). Ron finally finds some friends in pot-smoking rappers, and Henry and Kyle both miss out on acting opportunities, but it all comes together and makes the Party Down crew an even more likeable rag-tag group.
Episode 7 – Brandix Corporate Retreat
It’s trouble in semi-paradise for Henry and Casey thanks to a surprisingly funny Rick Fox playing himself (is it sad that I only know who he is because of Dancing With the Stars?). We finally see Roman’s (Starr’s) crush on Casey reach a boiling point, and he teams up with Henry to get to the bottom of her possible fling with Rick Fox. Her and Henry’s affair is revealed to the rest of the crew, making things awkward between her, Henry, and Roman. It’s not the funniest episode, but it does offer some nice character development.
Episode 8 – Celebrate Rick Sargulesh
The plot here is a bit similar to “Investor’s Dinner”, but it works nicely. The crew discovers that the man whose party they are catering has been acquitted for murder, but suspect that he might have a hit out on one of the other guests. Meanwhile, Constance finds her one and only fan in the possible victim, while Henry tries to avoid ruffling feathers after making out with the murderer’s girlfriend. I really like how Henry and Casey semi-resolve their issues, and all of the storylines work together really nicely.
Episode 9 – James Rolf High School Twentieth Reunion
It turns out that Ron is both catering and attending his high school reunion, which faces him to come to terms with some memories and friends from his past. One friend, Donnie (Joe Lo Truglio, who is hilarious here) also serves as a cautionary tale for Henry, who is thinking about moving back in with his parents. I loved the Casey/Henry stuff her, and the way that she asked him to stay felt very realistic for their relationship. But this episode also featured a lot of Ron-beating, and his explosive return to drinking at the end was mighty uncomfortable to watch. I understand that’s partially the goal, and watching the other crew members react to the debacle was surprisingly sweet, but it’s still not my favourite direction for the show to take.
Episode 10 – Stennheiser-Pong Wedding Reception
With Ron off the wagon, Henry has to take charge at a gay wedding run by a rival catering crew. Adam Scott has some great acting moments here, and he’s proven to be a very capable dramatic actor during brief moments all season. When Casey leaves at the end of the episode, you feel Henry’s pain. But that pain is eased by Kristen Bell, who guest stars as the leader of the rival crew. I’ve never been 100% convinced about Bell, but I guess the fact that Craig Ferguson likes her should have been my hint. Because she is hilarious here. I hope she comes back in the second season.
And so ends season one. Despite a few quibbles, it was a really strong ten episodes of comedy television. I’m starting season two soon, and even though I know there are some changes (Megan Mullaly replaces Jane Lynch – who, to be honest, never totally worked for me in the first season, anyways – Henry’s in charge, and Lizzy Caplan gets a bad hair cut), but I’ve heard that it’s just as good as season one. Are we having fun yet?