“What’s this about?” beleaguered, pink-tied caterer Henry Pollard asks himself in the opening seconds of the second season of Party Down, “I don’t know — professionalism?” And then he fires an alcoholic dwarf and gets back to the business at hand: providing five-sided Satanic sandwiches to a face-painted shock rocker named Jackal Onassis. Yes, people, Party Down is back. And it’s absolutely as good as ever. Which, if you’ve been paying attention, is pretty freaking good.
There’s been a noticeable trend in television over the last few years toward “dramedy” — that ridiculous sniglet that lets us know that an hour-long program about divorced families or international espionage is going to be occasionally wacky, goddammit. Heck, Grey’s Anatomy even has its own ludicrously on-the-nose bouncy background music to unspool every time its surgeons stop getting real and start dropping pop-culture references and snogging. But what too few recent programs have attempted is the reverse: the half-hour comedy spackled with the occasional deeply felt bits of pathos. (The domedy? The crama? Help us out in the comments.) No show has pulled this off as effortlessly as Party Down, which emerged fully formed and nearly flawless last year with an all-star pedigree (care of the creators of O.G. aughts dramedy Veronica Mars and their talent-packed friend Rolodex) and practically zero audience.
The premise of the show is simple and fairly genius: The titular Los Angeles catering company sends its motley crew out to a different event every week (ranging last year from a porn-awards show after-party to a sweet sixteen held on a yacht), thus constantly changing the scenario and the stakes. There is no “mockumentary” set up, no mugging for the cameras. The situation is the comedy, leaving room for the characters — oh, the characters! — to communicate the honest hopelessness of their lives with dead-eyed, big-hearted, dirty-minded precision. In the first season, we related to Henry Pollard (played to perfection by pinch-faced everyman Adam Scott) not only because of the soul-killing monotony of his lousy job, but because he was the only one who seemed at peace with where he’d ended up. Which is to say: nowhere. Zonked on Vicodin and pilfered sips of booze from the bar, Henry — a former Z-list celebrity best known for shouting a tinny catchphrase in beer commercials — watched with deadpan snark all the pointless “trying” that surrounded him: from the partying plastic porn stars and trust-falling corporate retreaters, to his obliviously desperate co-workers, all of whom believed they were still moving up the escalator of success instead of sliding back down it. But as the season progressed, he fell for the sexy, sarcastic comic Casey Klein (Brooklyn’s No.1 pin-up, the underrated Lizzy Caplan), and even flirted with a return to acting (he would have made a great young Lincoln!), only to blow his shot at the big time and then watch Casey leave to perform on a cruise ship. The joke, ultimately, was on him. (Lest we wax too serious, there were lots of jokes, too! Especially the ones about the now-departed Jane Lynch’s character’s eighties-exploitation movies, including Dingleberries, Walnuts and — wait for it — Screamweaver.)
Season two begins with Henry in command, no longer able to slack off with the rest of his dopey posse: Roman (Martin Starr), the “hard sci-fi” would-be writer, Kyle (Ryan Hansen), actor, himbo, and front man of a “power emo” group, and, replacing Lynch’s Constance, Lydia (the wildly good Megan Mullally), who is nuttily devoted to her aspiring child-star daughter, Escapade. In fact, Henry’s newfound responsibility has made him even less happy, as he admits to the aforementioned drunk dwarf after firing him. “You’re supposed to not give a shit, like a human being!” the little person rails before storming off. Poor Henry. Never has a man seemed so ill at ease in a tiny pink bow tie. Yet soon enough, the old gang is reunited as Casey, back from the high seas with her hair in an unfortunate bun, subs in for the little guy, and manic, back-on-the-sauce Ron Donald (the super-intense Ken Marino) crashes the backstage party with his metal-loving jailbait GF.
Everything that we loved about the first season is front and center here: the low-key and lived-in slackery vibe, the will-they-or-won’t-they couples crackling with fun sexual tension (Henry andCasey, Kyle and Roman, natch), jokes ranging from clever (Lydia’s mad riff about Whoopi Goldberg) and surreal (Lydia’s insistence on Casey’s awkward physical “sign” that she needs help with Henry) to subtle (Lydia quietly leaning her head against the chest of the burly security guard at the end). And if it isn’t already clear, we are 100 percent onboard with the addition of Mullally, who, freed from the hammy shackles of Will & Grace, seems to be inventing and unpeeling new layers of intense weirdness with every line reading and feathery hand gesture. Watch the way she greets Casey with the faux-excited almost hug. Now watch it again. We sure did! We never would have expected that the host of this would be making us forget Jane Lynch, but here we are. She is just kind of having a moment!
Anyway, we could rhapsodize endlessly over all the little details that cracked us up this episode: future “That Guy” hall-of-famer Jimmi Simpson as the normalcy-craving Jackal (and the skeazy lawyer from The Wire as his manager!), Kyle’s headshot, Ron’s jacket, Roman’s inability to score — even in Kiss makeup and platform boots — thanks to a lack of “aura.” But really, we are just giddy about having Party Down back in our lives for one more season. We could watch these guys slice limes and un-box bottles forever. Barring that, we’re ready to do it for nine more episodes. It’s all in the name of professionalism.