More than a decade after its first two perfect seasons, Party Down returns as an ode to failure and delusion. By Patrick Marlborough.

Party Down

Members of the catering staff in the sublime comedy Party Down.
Members of the catering staff in the sublime comedy Party Down.
Credit: Colleen Hayes/ Starz

There is a beautiful moment in the new season of Party Down where Ron Donald says, “You know what they say, the hardest part of climbing Mount Everest is the last 50 feet,” before performing a multipart pratfall that I can only describe as sublime. It lasts only five seconds but packed within it is a one-two punch that leaves you as flat as poor Ron. It’s a beautiful encapsulation of the philosophy that made Party Down unique: you are either a fuck-up or an achiever, and there’s no changing that.

Party Down was the quintessential cult comedy of the Obama years. The show charts the dead and dying dreams of the ragtag staff at an LA catering company, Party Down, a collection of failed actors, recovering addicts, would-be novelists and burnt-out one-hit wonders, as they buck against their fates with delusion as the only weapon in their arsenal.

After 13 years of being a show that seemed too perfect to have ever existed at all, Party Down is back for a third season, having been cancelled in 2010 after its first two seasons failed to garner an audience on the Starz network. Beginning right before Covid-19 then hurtling into the world that followed, the show reunites coolly over-it, would-be actor Henry Pollard (Adam Scott), self-made desperado Ron Donald (Ken Marino) and the rest of the old gang (with the exception of Lizzy Caplan), as well as a couple of new waitstaff (Zoe Chao and Tyrel Jackson Williams), for another serving of hors d’oeuvres.

Party Down was one of the first American sitcoms to try to realise the naturalistic mode of comedic existential dread introduced by the British The Office, which show creators John Enbom, Rob Thomas and Dan Etheridge say is exactly what they were hoping to achieve. It may have succeeded too well, however: where the American version of The Office and shows such as Parks and Recreation – in which Scott was cast after Party Down – had a quintessentially American liberal work family is still family schmaltz and sincerity at their core, Party Down fell somewhere between Ricky Gervais’s boring dystopia and the Looney Tunes satire of contemporaries such as It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. It was a candid look at the way capitalism sets us up to fail, aided by an ingenious format of hosting a different party every episode, which allowed them to skewer topics ranging from young conservatives to the porn industrial complex to the mediocrity at the heart of American popular culture.

Where It’s Always Sunny’s elevated cartoonishness allowed for a sort of Wile E. Coyote logic that made their body blows feel less rib-shattering, Party Down’s grounded, often brutally naturalistic performances and writing make you feel every hairline fracture. Arriving in the wake of the 2008 recession, it plainly stated a terrifying message that American culture is not comfortable hearing: hard work will not set you free, and neither will talent, networking, nor friendships.

It would have been so easy for this new season of Party Down to pull its punches and present its returning characters as nostalgic “found family” who can’t help but love working together. Instead, it is a deservedly bleak portrait of what it means to have failed in a purgatory that’s only somewhat of your own making. There is something acidly potent about this crew returning after the Trump years and finding themselves corralled back to this place from which the momentum of 2008 America was supposed to sail them away.

But here they are, in the 2020s, serving amuse-bouches to a cogent and cultured neo-Nazi (Nick Offerman) or helping former-caterer-turned-Hollywood-power-player Megan Mullally put on a fake high school prom for her child-actress daughter, Escapade, because she’s realised she robbed her of her childhood.

As it was a decade-and-a-half ago, the show’s writing, especially when helmed by Enbom, has that rare sort of conversational brilliance that makes its off-kilter performances seem improvised. Hard sci-fi writer Roman (Martin Starr) and twink-death poster child Kyle (Ryan Hansen) are still circling each other like turds in a punchbowl, and it’s great to see Jane Lynch return as hippie-heiress Constance Carmell, but the heart of the show has always been Scott’s beatific Henry, who shares some great moments with his new love interest, Jennifer Garner’s Evie, and Marino’s American nightmare, Ron Donald.

Marino may be the greatest comic performer of his generation, and nowhere is this more evident than in his embodiment of Ron Donald, whom he drags through glass like someone performing The Passion of the Christ at a self-help seminar. Where “resets” often feel forced and illogical, here they feel predestined, especially Ron’s. Here is a man who carries a photo of the stump of his friend’s amputated foot in his wallet, to remind him never to become a “party guy” again; who we’ve seen fail to even inch towards a dream that is considerably more humble and achievable than his staff’s visions of stardom; who is relentlessly punished by the American myth to which he has self-destructively shackled himself, the myth of the self-made man, all to great comedic effect.

“You can be an achiever or a fuck-up,” he tells Henry in the second episode of the original series, as he burns an American flag that saw action in Iraq, and in that moment, Henry decides he is, proudly, a fuck-up.

Party Down knows what it means to be unable to break the fuck-up cycle. It also understands who gets to become an achiever – the rich, the privileged, the preternaturally lucky. It’s all in the pratfall of that last 50 feet, where Marino bonks his head, falls on his arse, shakily hauls himself back up again, only to bonk his head even harder and collapse in a heap. It’s not a matter of can-do attitude, it’s not a matter of hard work, it’s not a matter of work-family and office crushes: it’s the matter of asking yourself “Are we having fun yet?” and, knowing that the answer is “No”, deciding how long to wait before asking again.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on April 29, 2023 as "Down and also out".

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