June 25, 2010

Pre-Party Upper (or: The Real Reason Why Netflix Exists)

Print More

Whenever I ask people about Party Down, or mention it, or post copiously and likely obnoxiously on The Social Medias about it, I get one of two responses. Either blank stares and polite curiosity from people who’ve neither heard nor seen it (Sorry, I don’t have Starz), or a wave of camaraderie from those who love the show, who have literally bought Netflix accounts or Starz subscriptions only so that they can watch the show Friday nights or Saturday mornings. That’s pretty powerful, if you think about it, and also true of shows — shows often mislabeled as “cult” — that are beloved by pretty much anyone who watches them, but unheard of by most of the populace.

And in some ways, that’s what the show is about: A team of underdogs who haven’t quite given up on their dreams of “making it”, even though life keeps handing them a crap pile in the form of canapés and pissed off party hosts. This is because, if you fall into the former category, they are a team of LA-hopefuls-cum-cater waiters. Adam Scott — who will be moving onto the greener-minded pastures of Parks and Recreation next year — plays Henry, our main access point of the series, navigating his almost numb, reentrance to the service world after a short stint in the fame game. Over two seasons, Henry goes from being distantly and ludicrously entertained by the Party Downers to one of them — even as he mocks them, you can tell that he cares.

The rest of the team is mixed of two parts Veronica Mars alumni, one part Apatow players. Yet what Party Down achieves (due both to the acting and writing) is a painful truth to each person’s pathos that its either more successful or pragmatic brethren, 30 Rock and The Office sometimes miss. That is to say that these characters who could be caricatures, are albeit at times ridiculous but mostly just painfully human.

There’s the smart and defensively superior aspiring sci-fi writer (Martin Starr), the seemingly cocky but actually sweet, naïve pretty boy wannabe actor (Ryan Hansen), the ambitious boss-man who fails on social cues (Ken Marino), the attractive, funny leading lady whose fears of settling down rival constantly battle her attraction to Henry (or Lizzie Caplan playing Lizzie Caplan), and the odd-duck older woman (first season Jane Lynch, this season Megan Mullaly, who I have missed from my TV like a … person misses Megan Mullaly from her TV). The dark humor of the show makes it easy to make fun of them, but it doesn’t stop you from sucking in that breath when they get screwed over, or shown up by their more polished cohorts (Kristen Bell plays Uda, the head of their anal retentive, douchebag catering competition). And if that’s not enough for all of you Glee fans out there (I can’t bring myself to say Gleeks), tonight’s finale welcomes back Jane Lynch.

Although Party Down is considered the more realistic yet tongue-in-cheek sibling to Entourage (and frankly, is where Johnny Drama would be if it weren’t for Vince), I actually see more in common with 30 Rock and The Office. I love 30 Rock as much as the next person, probably more. But what sometimes bugs me about that gang is not even so much what caracatures they are (more on that in a moment) but that these are kvetches who have made it. Yea, everything is relative, but while Liz is having existensial crises, or Jenna/Tracy are bitching, or Frank is … Franking, they’re still surrounded by the glossy walls of NBC and fairly cushy bank accounts. Meanwhile, the Party Down crew are mostly slaving way haplessly, dreaming of brighter days. The difference is even reflected cinematically: The glossy, color rich shots of the NBC show versus the darker, seedier grains of the Starz show’s screen. And, for Cornellians/my now graduated classmates, most of whom headed for New York and can’t seem to understand why the hell I’m in LA right now … well, sometimes I don’t get it either. Maybe it’s my own naïve optimism.

Another thing other critics (to be fair, more legitimate ones) have argued is that Party Down doesn’t know what kind of satire to be. I think it’s less that it doesn’t know what kind of satire, and more that it navigates that tricky terrain between the parody and the real. As I said, while I love The Office and 30 Rock, and of course there is truth in those characters, there is more flesh — bruisable flesh — to the PD crew, and something both more painful and cautiously inspiring about their circumstances. Ron Donald (Marino) seems always just on the verge of making it work, although his Soup’n’Crackers franchise failed; Casey (Caplan) has a meta-part in an Apatow movie (am I wrong? Was she never in any of them, and I always just feel like she was?), and even Scott wavers between falling in line with a modicum of traditional success (girlfriend, desk job, decent pay) and not giving up on his acting dreams — something he never talks about, but you can always feel.

Tonight is, as I’ve less than gracefully mentioned a few times, is the season two finale of the series. For those of you who fall into the latter part of the Party Down dichotomy, it probably means a potentially bittersweet weekend: It’s unknown if Party Down will get a third season, and Hansen is also moving on next year (although again, Scott will be back for a few episodes). But the show has shown to be more than adaptable to change, and, if anything, gains its power from new blood — something else you need to make it in LA. All I can say is that I hope you watch it, even if you’ve never seen it before: If you don’t have Starz, watch it on Netflix. In my opinion, that’s what it’s there for. It’s worth it to prove to Starz that, even in this (insert favored phrasing about today’s economy here) economy, we’re still willing to root for narratives that feature the underdog; that we don’t just want the glossy, pessimistic fairytale. Maybe there is also room for darkly optimistic reality in our TV-watching schedule.

Watch Party Down‘s Season 2 Finale tonight on Starz at 10 p.m, or catch it later on Netflix. 

Share this:EmailShare on Tumblr

Original Author: Julie Block