Pop Culture
Apr 07, 2023, 06:28AM

Are We Having Fun Yet?

After 13 long years, Party Down returns.

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Party Down was too well-timed for its own good. The Los Angeles catering comedy premiered on Starz in March of 2009, as the American economy continued its downward slide that began almost two years earlier. People were hurting, and aside from the emerging superhero franchise mythmaking that continues to this day, the best treatments Hollywood could offer at the time were the comedies of Apatow and Co. Judd Apatow’s a great writer and producer, a comedy giant, but the guy’s been in the business since he was a teenager, and it shows in his films’ total disconnection from economic hardships. My intelligence has never felt more insulted by a movie than when I revisited Knocked Up—whose high school dropout protagonist magically lands an office job after a third act reckoning with responsibility—during a prolonged job search in the early-2009. But Apatow’s dominance during this period suggests that the public felt differently, and largely preferred his fantasies over stories that bore any semblance to their actual lives.

Enter Party Down, a show about the lowly people toiling at the very edge of Hollywood fantasy. Produced by Apatow alum Paul Rudd, who shares a co-creator credit with John Enbom, Rob Thomas, and Dan Etheridge, the series follows the Party Down catering team to a different event each episode. The cast includes the aspirational sad-sack team leader Ron (Ken Marino); servers Casey (Lizzy Caplan), Kyle (Ryan Hansen), Roman (Martin Starr), Constance (Jane Lynch), and Lydia (Megan Mullally, a season 2 replacement for Lynch); and bartender Henry (Adam Scott). Except for Ron, each one of these characters has some other title they prefer over caterer, like standup comic (Casey), actor (Kyle, Constance), writer (Roman), and manager (Lydia), but Henry’s the only one with any significant experience with fame. In his early career, Henry starred in a beer commercial, whose catchphrase (“Are we having fun yet?!”) turned him into an overnight celebrity. In the pilot, when Casey first recognizes him, now dressed in the company’s white button-down and pink bowtie, she asks, “What are you doing working here?” He smiles. “Well, you remember me from anything else?”

Later, during the episode’s mid-credits coda, Henry receives a handjob in his car from a party guest. She begs him to say the catchphrase; when he finally acquiesces, he loses his erection. That final punchline sets the tone for the series that follows, a show about the routine humiliation and degradation of work, whether the service industry or entertainment industry. Party Down was a critical hit and earned a devoted cult following, but that wasn’t enough to prevent cancellation after its second season—a fitting end to a series about losing.

As a bleak job market continued to spin its wheels into a new decade, Party Down may have hit too close to home for many people. Or maybe they just didn’t have the money for cable anymore. But after more than a decade of rumors (and streaming business models that make premium channels like Starz slightly more affordable), Enbom and his team have returned to Starz for a six-episode revival of Party Down. Since the series originally ended, Ron has worked his way up the company ladder and, with the help of Constance, buys Party Down (the sale goes through just before the shutdown of March 2020). Henry, now a high school drama teacher, rejoins the team to help pay alimony after a messy divorce. Roman seemingly never left, now joined by aspiring influencer Sackson (Tyrel Jackson Williams) and aspiring food artist Lucy (Zoë Chao). Everyone is aspiring for something on Party Down, but except for Casey—now the star of a NYC police drama—nobody’s successful.

This includes Kyle, who hires Party Down to cater an event celebrating his new role in an MCU-like superhero franchise, only to be canceled before the party ends after footage of his band’s song “My Struggle”—a ballad about fame that, unbeknownst to Kyle, doubles as a neo-Nazi anthem–surfaces online. (Sample lyrics: “They brand you a star/Put you on the midnight train, going very far.”) Hansen’s the only original Party Down cast member who didn’t go on to become a semi-household name, which is a shame. Kyle’s one of the show’s most fully realized characters: a Cali himbo who truly believes he’s headed for stardom, even as he’s nearing 40 and still sporting the pink bowtie. Hansen brings a wonderful air of unearned confidence to Kyle, the personification of Hollywood self-absorption and delusion.

Kyle suffers the humiliation of returning to Party Down after a near brush with success, but Enbom and his writers save the bulk of the embarrassment for Ron, whose modest ambition of owning his own business is met by an almost Jobian gauntlet of misfortune (a running joke is that he has no sense of smell after contracting Covid four separate times). Ron’s loss is the viewer’s gain: his continued debasement gives Marino lots of opportunities to showcase his incredible comedic talents. His face is like a lump of silly putty with a crew cut, molded into expressions of panic, wistfulness, anguish, desperation, surprise, and joy, often within the space of a single scene. Party Down is a nice reminder that Marino’s one of our most gifted comic actors. So is Adam Scott, who takes the relatively thankless task of playing straight man and fashions a funny, sad, relatable character out of it. Like many of us, Henry has given up on his dreams, and being surrounded by those who haven’t given up yet only serves to underscore his failure.

If every sitcom has its default, the state that its characters must return to at the end of each episode, Party Down’s default is the grim dusk-light of failed dreams. But the new season’s romance between Henry and movie producer Evie (Jennifer Garner) threatens to untether the show from its plebeian origins. It doesn’t take long before Evie begins dangling possible movie gigs in front of Henry, including a major part in an upcoming franchise she’s producing. Enbom and his writers know that Henry’s the heart of Party Down, and that the series would fare about as well without him as The Office did without Steve Carrell. The Party Down of seasons 1 and 2 would’ve found some way to blow the opportunity up in Henry’s face, as they did with his chance at playing Abraham Lincoln during the memorable "Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen.” But this time, somewhat implausibly, Henry turns down the role, opting to remain a high school teacher.

Scott sells the sentimentality behind Henry’s decision about as well as any actor could hope to, but it’s too big a pill to swallow. That a struggling teacher working a second job would pass on a lucrative role in a popular sci-fi franchise seems preposterous to anyone who works two jobs, myself included. We’re re-entering Apatow Fantasy World. If Starz renews the series for another season, it better open with Henry kicking himself.

These are minor complaints. It’s still a new season of Party Down, something I never thought we’d actually get. And it looks like there might even be a season 4, in which Casey will play some sort of role, presenting Henry with more opportunities to escape from the Island of Misfit Actors. If we’re lucky, they’ll all go horribly wrong, and the party will keep on raging.


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