Parties are a drag. Don’t get me wrong, the idea of a party is great — music’s playing, drinks are flowing, people are dancing, people are flirting, maybe you meet someone new, maybe you go home with someone new… but let’s face it, that’s not what parties are actually like. You talk to the two people you already know, eat more than your share of guacamole, go home alone, wake up hungover, and if you’re lucky there was a dog there you got to pet.
That gap between expectations and realities was what made Party Down work. The cult comedy from 2009-2010 about a Hollywood catering company staffed by failed actors was great in no small part because it understood the undercurrent of sadness behind so many parties. Every character had a dream that was slipping away before their eyes — Henry (Adam Scott), who wasn’t able to parlay his beer commercial catchphrase into serious acting work; Casey (Lizzy Caplan), a standoffish comic in a failing marriage; Roman (Martin Starr), an antisocial sci-fi writer who insists he hasn’t sold a screenplay because Hollywood is beneath him; Kyle (Ryan Hansen), a himbo who’s the show’s token dumb guy and, frankly, least interesting character; and Ron Donald (Ken Marino), whose dream is simply to run a catering company and is just shy of being smart or competent enough to do even that. Jane Lynch was also in most of the first season as starry-eyed Constance, before leaving to join the cast of Glee; she was replaced in season two by Megan Mullally as Lydia, an aggressive stage mom.
Created by Paul Rudd and Rob Thomas (the one who created Veronica Mars, not the one from Matchbox Twenty), the series was based on their own years as aspiring actors whose careers weren’t going anywhere, and it felt lived-in because every actor has at some point had the experience of seeing fame and success up close without quite being able to share in it. It breeds resentment, despair, and hopelessness… and what’s funnier than that?
The show was the classic low-rated critical darling that didn’t last — Starz canned it after two seasons. But Rudd and Thomas (and Scott, who starred in the best TV show of last year) had enough clout to pitch a revival once new management took over at the network, and the series is back (sans Caplan, who’s busy with Fleishman is In Trouble and a Fatal Attraction reboot series, but with both Lynch and Mullally on board.)
The past few years have brought us many shows returning from a decade or more off the air — Arrested Development, Mr. Show, Full(er) House, Will & Grace, Rugrats, Dexter, Beavis & Butthead, That 70s/90s Show, Night Court — but what it hasn’t brought was a revival that had a compelling reason to exist, or that held up against the original, with the possible exception of Blues Clues. (And the Kids In the Hall revival had its moments.)
So is Party Down worth revisiting in 2023? One episode in, it remains to be seen. The characters have moved on with their lives, apart from Ron, who’s still running the business, and Roman, who’s even more bitter that no one appreciates his genius. We expect that the episode explains how the ensemble all end up working together again at Party Down Catering, and it absolutely does not do that. Instead, we get a reunion of old frenemies, as the gang gets together to celebrate Kyle’s big break as superhero Nitroman… which quickly starts to crumble as a video surfaces of his old band playing with unintentionally Nazi-themed lyrics (in a callback to the previous series finale). So as always, the party — and someone’s hopes and dreams — falls apart, and the gang is disillusioned as always.
Except, it’s not the same as always. Henry — always the clear-eyed one of the group — spends the night trying not to reconnect with his old life, and at episode’s end, goes back to his life as a high school teacher who’s left acting behind. Clearly he and the rest of the cast will get sucked back in before too long, but “Kyle Bradway Is Nitromancer” felt like a lot of setup without much payoff. (Although it does end with a terrific kicker that puts Ron and the catering business in a hole for episode two.)
And while the cast remains stellar, the soul of the show was the sexual tension and romantic longing between Henry and Casey. Casey’s absence has been explained by her character being the one person in the group to make it big (she spent a few years on Saturday Night Live), which is alluded to as a source of angst for Henry, now married to someone else, but the episode doesn’t do much with that.
In fact, it doesn’t do much with any of its characters other than to remind you that, yes, they’re all still here and they’re still the same striving screw-ups you remember. On one hand, it’s nice to see an unfairly canceled show get another shot. It’s good to see our gang of disillusioned cater-waiters reunited. But there is such a thing as a party going on for too long. We’ve got five more episodes to see if this one has some life in it yet.
Stray Hors d’Oeuvres
• We get a few new members of the ensemble, including Disney Channel regular Tyrel Jackson Williams as an aspiring TikTok influencer working for Party Down; Zoë Chao (Strangers, The Afterparty) who was not in this episode, and Jennifer Garner as a film producer who shows up in a few scenes and asks Ron to cater a party for her husband (James Marsden, who is not listed as a regular but presumably will be back in next week’s episode.)
• Before a string of film and TV roles for Disney Channel, Tyrel Jackson Williams got his start playing Chris Rock as a toddler on Everybody Hates Chris, and voiced Tyrone on Backyardigans when he was still in elementary school.
• Martin Starr has had a remarkable career in which he always plays a nerd, but always a different very recognizable type of nerd. He was the gawky, eager-to-please nerd on Freaks and Geeks; the self-aware and resigned-to-his-nerddom nerd in Adventureland; the abrasive, overconfident nerd on Silicon Valley; and here is the nerd who acts superior to mask a very deep and very transparent well of insecurity. It’s quite a feat as an actor to do so many variations on a theme so well and make them all feel like separate people. That being said, Starr gets very little to do in this episode.
• Lynch and Mullally also get very little to do, although the fact that Lynch’s Constance is a widow who inherited a tremendous amount of money does figure into the plot. Lynch was a delight in the early episodes because she plays completely against type — Constance is a well-meaning airheaded hippie, and the furthest thing from Lynch’s usual brusque persona. Here’s hoping the rest of the season finds her — and the rest of the cast’s deep bench — enough to do.