tv review

Party Down Has Time on Its Side

Photo: Colleen Hayes/Starz

Most TV revivals fall somewhere between “disappointing” and “fine, but why does this exist,” but Party Down has a secret weapon that most TV revivals do not. Starz’s new season of the cultishly beloved series about L.A. cater-waiters does not need to justify its existence. It does not need to find some excuse for why most of its main characters would be in the same circumstances over a decade later, and it doesn’t need to tilt headlong against the maudlin pitifulness of a nostalgia engine. Revivals always come packaged with a wistful sense of loss and a begrudging acknowledgment of the passage of time. Even the happiest ones are a little sad. And therein lies the key to this revival’s success: Party Down was always a little sad.

If it was hilarious and a little depressing that these cater-waiters were waiting for their big breaks when the show first ran from 2009 to 2010, it is that much more hilarious and that much more depressing that these same people are still here in 2023, still wearing little pink bow ties and pouring glasses of Chardonnay. If anything, the new season is even better than the first two, because time has only improved its ability to take on the themes it wanted to explore in the first place. There’s the sense of random unfairness in who does and who doesn’t make it and the dizzy disorientation of looking at someone on a TV screen and knowing they were once standing next to you holding an appetizer tray. There are all the feelings of longing and creative energy, piled up next to the awareness that actually getting a big Hollywood job might not ultimately satisfy. And there’s the unbearable tragic beauty of returning cast member Ken Marino as Ron Donald, who dreams of making this catering outfit a massive success because he loves to serve people, and who’s still struggling to make that happen all these years later.

In Party Down’s first two seasons, most of its central characters assume that their catering jobs are stopgaps, the thing to do until they finally succeed somewhere else. Henry (Adam Scott) longs to make his acting career work and is haunted by his one successful role in a ubiquitous TV commercial. Roman (Martin Starr) wants to write science fiction; Kyle (Ryan Hansen) is waiting for his big acting or modeling break; Lydia (Megan Mullally) is a momager. Party Down, like tons of showbiz shows before it, was an insider-y look at the star-making machinery, except it was pretty clear that few of those stars were ever going to make it. The futility is baked in, a constant thrumming beat underneath the show’s bleak, sometimes slapstick, sometimes gloriously inane humor.

Nearly all of the central players have returned for this belated third season, which premieres the first of its six episodes on February 24. Scott is back as Henry, who’s left the industry grind but is now picking up some catering shifts as a side gig. Hansen returns as Kyle, who nearly makes it out into movie stardom, only to slingshot back around into another period of auditions. Lydia’s back, too, as is erstwhile actress and former employee Constance (Jane Lynch), now a widow with an inheritance. Perhaps most crucially, Marino returns as Party Down boss Ron, still wielding an uncanny sense for physical comedy and a face that looks like theatrical comedy and tragedy masks melded into a single desperate expression of despair mixed with even-more-crushing hope.

To an almost astonishing degree, the new season of Party Down is able to capture and even extend all of the best things about its first two seasons. It can return to the original conceit of each episode being its own catered event, which lets the show play around with different settings and guest appearances. (There’s a particularly great one from Judy Reyes, which is a good reminder that Judy Reyes should always be on TV.) It seamlessly incorporates a couple of new, younger team members — Tyrel Jackson Williams as Sackson, a wannabe influencer working as a cater-waiter until his sponsorship deals come in, and Zoë Chao as the group’s new chef, Lucy — while also building in an outside perspective on staff dynamics via the addition of Jennifer Garner, whose comedy instincts help soften and expand the show’s occasionally grim outlook. It has resisted any temptation to make the show look slicker or more polished: Party Down always had a DIY aesthetic that was no doubt the result of its small budget, but which was also a key part of its overall grungy, loading-docks-and-chafing-dishes appeal. It’s always disconcerting when a series that once looked distinctly like a bygone TV era suddenly returns with a new high-def finish, and the newest Party Down episodes manage to appear contemporary but still slightly ramshackle.

They also retain the first two seasons’ occasionally savage instinct for poking at Hollywood culture, both narrow and sweeping. There’s a typically deft move in the season’s first episode that explains the absence of Casey, played by Lizzy Caplan, the only original main cast member who didn’t return for the revival. “She’s shooting in New York,” Roman tells Lydia. “Too big-time for the likes of us.” (Caplan reportedly couldn’t make the Party Down filming work as it overlapped with her schedule for Fleishman Is in Trouble.) It’s a cute little inside joke, but then Party Down twists it into something even better, using Casey’s romantic history with Henry in the first two seasons to knock the emptiness of most onscreen relationships. “I always rooted for them as a couple,” Lydia tells Constance in the season-three premiere. “Why?” Roman asks. “Because they hooked up ten years ago on and off on a shit job?” “Because they’re both skinny and they both have brown hair!” Lydia replies. “It’s just so romantic!”

Despite all the bummer vibes, though, Party Down is not one of those comedies that someone will later describe as “more of a drama, really.” This was never the kind of show to overstate its own significance or overplay its hand. It is decidedly not a sweeping epic, nor is it a fancam-generating will-they-won’t-they, or the comedy that will define Hollywood Right Now, or a particularly rich vein of intellectual property to be tapped and re-tapped for generations. It’s small and specific and punchy and fun. It’s the kind of experience you assume will be light and familiar, but when you happen to find a truly great one, it is completely transporting. It’s a little like one of the conceptual appetizers Lucy keeps trying to send out to unsuspecting partygoers: What might like look like standard-issue fare from the outside is actually packed full of ultra-premium ingredients meant to evoke complex emotional responses of joy, sorrow, melancholy, Schadenfreude, yearning, delight. Except unlike some of Lucy’s creations, which occasionally go so far that they’re barely edible, the new season of Party Down also manages to be astoundingly satisfying.

Party Down Has Time on Its Side