Party Down S3E3: First Annual PI2A Symposium

“Henry had sex, everybody!”

One thing we’re already enjoying about this revival season of Party Down is its inclination to zig when we expect it to zag. The first episode pointedly didn’t get the gang back together, and when last week ended with Jennifer Garner’s movie producer Evie asking Adam Driver’s sad-sack Henry for a drink, it seemed like the obvious setup for the kind of simmering romance Henry had with Casey on the show’s original run.

Nope! As the Party Down crew set up for this week’s event, Henry’s calling Evie because he left his keys at her place. They’ve already been dating for a few weeks. And rather than being the crux of the episode, their relationship is backgrounded, as this week a cash-strapped Ron has booked what the crew quickly realizes is an alt-right event promoting “Western Supremacy, Without Apology.” While they’re quick to insist they’re not Nazis, “they’re not not Nazis,” as Sackson observes.

Stuart, the tightly-wound Young Republican type running the event, insists the not-not-Nazis aren’t fascist goons, they’re only interested in “open-minded good faith debate in the open marketplace of ideas,” which has always been the rallying cry of people whose ideas have already been soundly defeated in the marketplace of ideas, not to mention the Battle of the Bulge.

And with most Party Down parties, things don’t go well. One thing that makes a typical episode work so well is that, while the staff are a bunch of resentful, lazy incompetents, the clients are usually equal partners in making the party fly off the rails. So Stuart has to deal with left-wing protesters outside, a disappointing turnout inside, the wealthy libertarian funding the operation (a cast-exactly-to-type Nick Offerman) who won’t stop comparing every liberal idea to Hitler (while also praising Hitler), and the top-billed speaker (a fictional Fox News correspondent) having to cancel after “one of the working people he’s trying to speak for” runs over his foot.

The staff abdicates their responsibilities as usual — Lucy refuses to let the guests “ingest and absorb into their Nazi bodies” the food she cooked for the event, Kyle abandons work to try and impress the protesters, Sackson makes himself sick on the “warmbucha” he promotes on TikTok, and Henry is juggling calls from Evie and his divorce lawyer while two of his school-play actors keep popping up at inopportune moments, in between very nominally doing his job serving drinks to white supremacists.

And the protesters are causing trouble outside… until they take things too far and start making the not-Nazis look reasonable by comparison. (It’s a little over the top that liberal protesters would start chanting “fuck free speech,” but it leads to a terrific payoff later on.) Until counter-counter protesters show up and the chaos escalates from there.

Party Down is built on making fun of Hollywood types, and while they’re incredibly soft targets, the show is so good at specificity. And while the alt-right are, if anything, softer targets, they get a lot of details right here, from Stuart’s ever-present forced smile and high school debate club suit/tie/haircut, to the Asian guy who’s decided to throw his lot in with the white supremacists, to everyone’s tendency to both praise and backpedal away from Hitler. And whoever wrote the scene where Kyle leads the protesters in a chant of “Hey hey! Ho ho! This Nazi stuff has got to go!” has definitely spent time at some ineffectual left-wing protests.

Also spot-on are the varied reactions to the Nazis. Ron just sees them as another paying client and doesn’t understand what the problem is; Kyle’s enthusiasm for the protest is entirely performative; Lucy is charmed when Offerman showers flowery praise on to her food and then quickly hates herself for being charmed by a white supremacist; Roman looks down his nose at Lucy for briefly cozying up to one of these people, before Sackson points out that the audience for Roman’s sci-fi blog is almost entirely Gamergaters and incels.

And poor, put-upon Henry just wants to get through another day. Until the end of the episode, when it comes back around to Evie. As a movie producer who leads a fairly charmed life, Henry lives very far outside her comfort zone. He’s broke, is going through a messy divorce, and is trying to find a moment for Evie in between his two jobs and the ongoing chaos of the alt-right event. It’s a lot. But while Evie acknowledges that the relationship is “not fairy-tale shit,” it just might be what she needs after dating a philandering Hollywood phony. And everything wraps up in a series of nice moments that show us that Henry’s a good guy, a good teacher, and a pretty decent actor, even if he’s stuck slinging drinks for Nazis. Or as he puts it, “Nazi-adjacent. Still pretty bad.”

Stray hors d’oeuvres:
• This one could not have been timelier for viewers on North Campus.

• “You know who didn’t care about his image?” “Please don’t say Hitler.”

• Party Down is also good at defying expectations when it comes to casting. While Offerman is just playing a slightly more Hitleriffic version of his Parks and Recreation character, the show doesn’t try to make hay of reuniting with P&R costar Adam Scott, who he has almost no face-to-face time with. Offerman is also married to series regular Megan Mullaly… who doesn’t appear in this episode. The show simply lets a terrific character actor play to his strengths, and doesn’t go for the easy thrill of recognition that a lesser show would have.

• Also no Jane Lynch this week, and very little Ron. That’s likely out of necessity, as the show had to film around scheduling issues, and Lynch was suffering from Covid. Frankly, the episode works just fine with a smaller cast, as we get more of Roman than we’ve seen thus far, we get to know Lucy a little better, and Henry gets enough time to be the emotional anchor he’s always been for the show.

• That being said, we get a quick reminder of what a gifted physical comedian Ken Marino is as Ron Donald. A scene where he tries to maneuver a tray of food away from an angry Lucy is the biggest laugh of the episode.