When Party Down threw its last party back in 2010, the show left many unanswered questions lingering: Would Henry stage his big comeback by snagging that part in Velour? Would Constance cash in on her newfound millions? Could Casey make it big even though her part in the Apatow movie was cut? Was Roman’s weed-fueled toilet-paper screenplay actually a masterpiece? And now we have answers. (For the record: No, yes, yes, and maybe?)
Even though the now-ersatz finale of Party Down was watched by a mere 13,000 viewers when it aired on Starz almost 13 years ago, the show quickly became a word-of-mouth cult favorite among people with impeccable taste in fun and clever TV. (That’s you!) Despite glowing critical praise, the show was canceled after two seasons … presumably because no one knew about it while it was on. In fact, the first episode of the revival gives a knowing nod to the initial obscurity of the series with a bouncer responding to Henry’s claim that he’s part of the Party Down crew with “Never heard of it. Is it on cable?”
The original show was a fizzy cocktail that mixed two parts biting showbiz satire with three parts workplace comedy. And while the commentary on the futility of attaining the Hollywood dream was somewhat niche, the concept of punching into a thankless job with a ragtag group of apathetic co-workers was something that most viewers could relate to.
For longtime fans of the show, hanging out with the gang again (minus Casey, since Lizzy Caplan was reportedly needed on the NYC set of Fleishman Is in Trouble) feels like spending time with old friends. While it’s electrifying to see all our faves back together again, this episode marks a departure from the typical Party Down format, since most of the characters are guests at the event, not working it. The pace of the half-hour ends up being a bit uneven as it works to quickly catch us up on what’s been going on in these characters’ lives and set the stage for the rest of the season.
As the group assembles to celebrate Kyle’s (Ryan Hansen) ascendance to movie superhero, we get the scoop on all our besties. Kyle, of course, is excited about winning a potentially star-making role as Nitromancer. It’s unclear whether Hollywood ran out of boyishly handsome actors to play the oodles of superheroes that now dominate the entertainment landscape or what, but after languishing in audition hell for more than a decade, Kyle is rightfully pumped about the opportunity.
As for our other favorite cater-waiters, we learn that Henry (Adam Scott) has settled into a life of mediocrity as a high-school English teacher. Constance (Jane Lynch), flighty as ever, has been dipping into her bottomless piggy bank to fund various local artists. Lydia (Megan Mullally) has gone full momager, spewing vitriol on the phone Ari Gold style one minute, then switching gears to gossip about Henry and Casey without skipping a beat. Even though we don’t see her, we find out that Casey made it big on SNL and is now starring in something called More CATS. (Whether it’s a version with realistic CGI buttholes is anyone’s guess.) Roman (Martin Starr) still runs his prestigious blog, and he’s in the process of “tinkering” with his opus. (He’s still working as a cater-waiter in a pink bow tie.) And, last but not least, there’s Ron.
It has never been clearer that Ron Donald (Ken Marino) is the heart and soul of Party Down. Forever a bumbling, earnest try-hard, Ron is still doggedly attempting to make his dreams of being a successful party professional happen. While the other members of the gang certainly have their moments in this episode, Ron steals the show. Marino’s aptitude for physical comedy is the gift that keeps on giving. From an offhanded (pun intended) reveal of his wickedly broken finger to his abrupt face-plant into a table when James Marsden shakes his injured hand, Marino vibrates with a full-bodied commitment to the bit in every scene. Even Ron wordlessly stumbling into the kitchen (bloody, bedraggled, and bummed) earns a beat of giddy laughter. Honestly, after this first revival episode, I can confidently say that if, for whatever reason, they can’t bring the full cast back for another round, I would fully watch an iteration of this show in which Ron fumbles to manage a new set of Party Down cater-waiters each season.
One of the funniest things about Ron is that he has always been a boss who inspires no devotion or respect from his subordinates. “Are we having fun yet?” notwithstanding, his clunky mottos provided some of the most quotable moments from the show’s original run. (While I know people go crazy for the RDDs, my personal favorite is the Ron/Constance mashup, “No personal business on company pond.”) And he’s still trying to make them happen with a new batch of disinterested staff.
Yet despite Ron’s continued protests, the entire event in this episode is personal business on company pond. Kyle has invited Party Down to cater the event, partly because of nostalgia for the old gang but also because he wants to rub Roman’s nose in his success. It’s shades of “Joel Munt’s Big Deal Party” all over again. At the top of the episode, we get a fun moment of banter between Roman and Kyle, in which Roman tries to drag Kyle down from his euphoric fame high and Kyle cheekily responds that superhero stories are our modern-day answer to Greek myths. You just know he overheard that somewhere. Perhaps his sharp manager, played by Quinta Brunson, passed that nugget of knowledge onto him.
The Party Down staffers convene for a reunion photo, and they meet Sackson (Tyrel Jackson Williams), the new guy whose chosen art form is “content.” Kyle initially scoffs at this but then seeks Sackson’s advice when he becomes ensnared in a Nazi scandal involving old footage of Karma Rocket’s song featuring “powerful Aryan energy” from Constance’s wedding in the original Party Down finale.
Of course, we all know that Kyle isn’t a Nazi. He’s just an idiot. But that doesn’t stop the news cycle from glomming on to the video. Within minutes, there’s a hashtag: #IsNitromancerANazi. Within hours, Kyle is out as Nitromancer and his buddy is in. There’s a vague insinuation that Ron indirectly caused Kyle’s final downfall, as he smashed Kyle’s phone before Sackson could post a carefully crafted apology video, but we all know that social media loves a villain.
While Kyle deals with losing everything, Henry aimlessly putters around the party. It seems possible that he was hoping to reunite with Casey (us too, Henry), but it’s also possible he’s grateful to have escaped his disappointing life for an evening. He chats with Ron, then stumbles into a meet-cute with Evie (Jennifer Garner), a movie producer on Nitromancer who’s at the party with her smarmy actor boyfriend, Jack Botty (an always-welcome James Marsden). As Evie rattles off the laundry list of superhero movies she has worked on, it’s clear that the show is lampooning the shift in the industry over the past decade. It’s tongue-in-cheek funny that Ant-Man himself, Paul Rudd, is a co-creator and executive producer of Party Down — especially since when the original series aired 12 years ago, “Ant-Man” would have sounded just as ridiculous as “Guy-ote” or “Ecomancer” to most people.
Henry somehow manages to become involved in every major event at the party. He finds out that Ron needs ten grand by midnight to keep Party Down afloat, then unwittingly connects Ron with Evie and Jack. When Jack doesn’t end up investing due to Ron’s hilarious yet unfortunate pain-induced face-plant, Henry suggests Constance as an alternative. Later, Henry ends up having an animated brainstorming sesh with Roman and Sackson, and they crack the case of who leaked the Karma Rocket video. Turns out it was Miles — one of the members of Karma Rocket. Shrug. The plot twist falls flat as a shocking reveal, but anything that gets Kyle back in that pink bow tie works for me.
At the end of the night, thanks to Constance’s largess and Ron’s continued commitment to the business, Party Down lives to see another day. But then COVID hits, rocking the service industry to its core. Party? Down … for 14 months.
• The mid-credits scenes have always provided hilarious codas that help viewers wind down from the events of the episode, and the show has not lost its touch in that department. We see Ron pop out of his van more than a year later to answer a call about a potential post-COVID event. Here we go.
• Most of the gang has slipped back into their old roles, but Mullally is making some truly perplexing decisions in her portrayal of Lydia. She has a new affectation in her voice and completely lost the gee-shucks midwestern air that made her such a contrast to the other, more cynical crew members. Hollywood has shaped her into something weird and wild, I guess.
• That said, I hope Lydia gets to go toe to toe with the legendary Leonard Stiltskin at some point this season. If there were a wish list for returning guest stars, J.K. Simmons’s acerbic and foul-mouthed movie executive would be at the top of my list.
• In a quick aside with Henry, Ron shares that his relationship with Danielle Lugozshe fell apart once she met a hot cop at a women’s march, which seems very on brand for her. It makes me sad that this turn of events means we probably won’t be seeing the wonderful June Diane Raphael this season, but Ron’s thing is that he never actually wins, so the narrative tracks.
• All. The. Callbacks. Evie smokes Parliaments — just like Henry. Constance asks for Ron’s trusty stain stick, and all of Ron’s catchphrases are as delightfully ineffective as ever. Did I miss anything?
• Quinta Brunson in all the things, please! Her appearance is far too short in this episode.
• Paul Rudd must’ve shared his famous antiaging potion with the cast, because everyone looks fabulous, even though 12 years have elapsed.
• I always wonder about people who watch revivals, prequels, and reboots without watching the originals. Are you a Party Down noob? Show yourself in the comments!