Party Down S3E6: Spring Play Opening Night

At its heart, Party Down is about people who fell just short of achieving their dreams, so we end our too-short, long-delayed third season with everyone on the cusp of maybe having their moment after all. Or maybe not.

At the end of last episode, Roman sold his long-gestating hard sci-fi novel to Smydgyn, a streaming service that makes shows for your phone, tablet, and the screen on your vacuum cleaner. But the company almost immediately goes bankrupt, so he doesn’t get his big break and the rights to the story he’s been working on for ten years are in legal limbo, so he’s worse off than he started.

Everyone else is at the beginning of that predictable arc. Lucy’s been skimming money from the catering business to create a $2000 hors d’oeuvre she can use as her audition piece for Auteur, “the extreme dining spot for celebs and finance bros,” where she’ll be able to cook challenging dishes like vampire squid and eagle. And Sackson’s fall down the escalator last week has boosted his numbers on TikTok… but now his fans are more interested in him falling down than doing inspirational dance videos. 

Lydia’s the only one who seems to have worked things out. She’s passed her daughter Escapade off to a more powerful agent, and has moved on to managing Kyle, who gets the role in the Lost Boys reboot he’s been gunning for all season — because like Kyle himself in the first episode, the studio’s first choice got canceled over a social media post. Lydia just gets a brief moment here, but working with Kyle gives the show a reason to bring her back to Party Down next season when she never actually went back to working for Party Down.

And then there’s Henry. He’s on the cusp of success, about to jet away to Tunisia with Evie to play Colonel Belorean in the Star Saga franchise she produces. But first he has one last high school play to put on, the questionably-appropriate ‘Tis a Pity She’s a Whore, a play from just after Shakespeare’s time full of murder and incest (which leads to a great running gag of people talking about how romantic the play was. “They were brother and sister,” a horrified Henry keeps reminding everyone.).

And we see Henry in his element. ”First Annual PI2A Symposium’s terrific ending showed that, as disengaged as he is at his catering job, he’s genuinely a great teacher, warm, funny, and invested in the kids’ well being. We get a lot more of that, as the episode opens on the play’s opening night, and he’s beaming with pride for his young actors. Beyond that, he genuinely cares about acting. Not fame, not money, just the joy of putting on a show with a bunch of theater nerds, inhabiting a character, and actually doing the work. He’s far more engaged and excited than we’ve ever seen him talking about Star Saga with Evie.

But he does still have some terrific chemistry with Evie, who surprises him with a cast party after the play, catered by Party Down, a significant step up from the store-brand Sprite he promises the kids. Although it does lead to a momentary, “wait, do I have to work this?” (He does not.)

Like all Party Down parties, things quickly go awry, as Vice Principal Mittman (Dan Bakkedahl, Congressman Furlong from Veep and a very early Daily Show correspondent) shows up to bust the party. It never crosses Evie’s mind that serving alcohol on school grounds is a bad idea, and it doesn’t cross anyone’s mind that food is actually worse, as the public school foodservice union is not to be trifled with.

Not wanting to let his students down, Henry schemes to continue the party in secret, in the library, once Mittman leaves. But he hasn’t actually left, so Ron volunteers to keep him away from the illicit party. Now, it doesn’t make a ton of sense that Henry — generally the lone levelheaded responsible one in the group — is suddenly being so irresponsible, as he’s now leaving the kids alone with alcohol (and with Kyle, eager to impress a few underage girls with his new-found fame). But he’s about to leave the job for Star Saga, so none of it seems to matter much to him.

Besides, Ron’s taking care of things. One thing Party Down consistently excels at is telegraphing where the story’s going, and then veering off into an unexpected direction. The Proud Boys are about to attack the liberal protesters in “First Annual PI2A Symposium”… but they’re actually conservatives pretending to be liberals to discredit the left. The “WSGY-95 Prizewinner’s Luau” contest winners are getting ready to meet Sting… but they’re actually deadbeat dads caught in a sting operation.

So having compulsively incompetent Ron going out to distract the vice principal is such an obvious recipe for trouble, but the show neatly sidesteps that. Mittman isn’t coming back to bust the party, he’s hiding out in the bleachers smoking a joint. He and Ron commiserate over their respective thankless jobs, and Ron gives him a terrific heart-to-heart about how his high school VP turned him into slightly less of a fuckup. But not that much less.

Ron Donald has always been the secret heart of the show because while everyone else has their eyes on Hollywood, Ron’s grand ambitions are simply to run a catering outfit — the very same thing everyone else takes as a sign of failure. Yet like his employees, even his very modest dream keeps slipping away from him. His storyline this episode — it’s not clear whether or not he actually owns the business or not, and key investor Constance is too high and too disinterested to help him sort it out — doesn’t really go anywhere, but it doesn’t really have to. 

It’s enough just to be reminded of the kind of guy Ron is. Unflappably optimistic, even as he and everyone around him reliably screw everything up. He ends up happier chasing his modest dream than the rest of the crew are chasing their outsized ones. It’s a nice lesson, and one the show doesn’t beat the audience over the head with.

It’s just one more small stone on the scale that keeps Henry from taking the lucrative franchise-movie role that we gradually realize isn’t actually his dream job. It’s too good to say no to, but he never shows much enthusiasm for being a cog in a sprawling sci-fi franchise that wouldn’t require much in the way of actual acting, and he isn’t even that enticed by the money, although it would solve a lot of problems for him.

Ultimately, despite the high caliber of the writing and the cast, Party Down is at heart a sitcom, so at the end of the day, everyone has to end up back where they started. Which means it isn’t really a spoiler that Henry turns down the role to remain a teacher and cater-waiter, we’ve seen that coming for a few weeks now. But a lesser show would give him one big moment where he makes that decision, and instead we get a bunch of small ones: Seeing the endless cycle of elation and frustration that Kyle, Roman, Lucy, and Sackson each go through by turns. The envy the vice principal has for Henry, who gets to be the fun, cool teacher instead of the perpetual bad cop.

And the heartbreak on the face of Riley, the young actress Henry talks out of quitting the play in “PI2A Symposium,” who finds out through the grapevine that Henry’s leaving the school. (The young actors who play Henry’s students are all terrific in the moments they get here, none moreso than Chrstina Offley, who plays Riley)

It feels inevitable by the time Evie realizes that Henry isn’t coming with her, but it also feels a little pat. Until we get to the mid-credits scene, which is a real spoiler, so if you haven’t yet seen the episode, skip ahead to the bullet points.

Party Down usually uses its mid-credits scene the same way Arrested Development used its fake “next time on…” — to put a button on a gag or a storyline from earlier in the episode. But this one is a bit weightier. We jump ahead to some point in the future, where Ron and Henry are in a good mood, catering an event with honest-to-goodness Hollywood big-shots. Until one of those big-shots bursts into the kitchen looking for a drink. It’s Casey Klein.

Lizzy Caplan’s character — a sarcastic, standoffish, more dissatisfied counterpoint to (and love interest for) Henry — was written off the show for this season because Caplan was already committed to both Fleishman Is In Trouble and the Fatal Attraction reboot series. In the first episode, we learn that Casey ended up on Saturday Night Live, and then went onto a movie career. She was the one member of the Party Down crew who actually caught the dream she was chasing.

And it’s made her miserable. She hates having a publicist micromanage her every word, she hates navigating phony Hollywood parties, she hates being expected to keep her mouth shut about the sexist, toxic workplaces Hollywood is rife with. She just wants a stiff drink so she can keep barely containing her desire to burn it all down.

And in that moment, Henry’s choice makes sense. He’s not rich and famous in his life as a teacher, quite the opposite, but he’s satisfied. And it wasn’t until this episode, maybe not until the ending credits of this episode, that he realizes that. I want to believe that Starz will offer Party Down a fourth season, and this seems to be a signal that Caplan is open to returning if they do. But if this is how Party Down ends, thirteen years after it ended the first time, it’s as good an ending as you could hope for. 

Seeing Casey miserable for having achieved her dream brings the show’s central theme full circle. And it gives us the connection to the original run of the show we didn’t realize we needed. For just a moment, it feels like she misses the days when she and Henry were struggling up-and-comers. She’s made it to the top and she’s still struggling. But Henry is finally smart enough to move on from all the Hollywood bullshit and settle into a more satisfying life. At long last, he’s having fun yet.

Stray hors d’oeuvres
• In six weeks of covering Party Down, that was the first time I didn’t have to look up the spelling of “hors d’oeuvres”

Party Down loves its long episode titles. This one’s called “Sepulveda Basin High School Spring Play Opening Night,” which we shortened to fit into a headline.

• Once again, Lucy doesn’t get much to do, but makes the most of her limited screen time. After Roman realizes his life’s work is gone, possibly forever, she encourages him to keep moving forward and find a new creative project. In the early episodes, her uncompromising commitment to her art is played for laughs, and without really changing much, it becomes heartfelt, worthwhile advice. And leads to an even better moment when Roman returns the same advice back to her. It’s been nice seeing these two grow into unlikely kindred spirits over a few quick moments this season, and Zöe Chao has proven to be a terrific addition to the cast. Here’s hoping she gets more to do if we get a season four.

• Kyle, the shallowest character, tends to have the shallowest storylines, but his dawning realization that he’s not playing the bad boy vampire, he’s playing his dad, is a great character moment that ties into the episode’s themes well. He’s not the young pretty boy any more, and while he doesn’t have to abandon his dreams, he does have to recalibrate them a bit.

• I can’t take credit for this one: Myles McNutt from Episodic Medium put together that Party Down co-creator Rob Thomas has made several attempts to reboot The Lost Boys, so he’s finally able to bring it to life as the fictional show Kyle gets cast in.

• Lizzy Caplan was magnetic on those early seasons of the show. The sexual tension between her and Adam Scott was part of the initial draw, but Casey was a terrific character all by herself. While the rest of the crew alternated between hopeful and resigned, Casey had a simmering anger lurking beneath her slacker exterior that gave a jolt of energy to every episode. Which is a long way of saying it’s to Jennifer Garner’s eternal credit that she was as winning as she is this season, essentially having to be the Kirstie Alley to Caplan’s Shelley Long, replacing an all-time-great romantic foil on a series where people serve alcohol. And to Party Down’s credit that they could create a whole new dynamic for season three, while still making it feel of a piece with the first two. So many TV series have tried and failed (critically, if not commercially) to make a comeback in recent years, and the only ones to succeed for my money are this show and The Conners, who had to replace their female lead and rethink the show’s central dynamic. Each likely succeeded because of that and not despite it, because it forced the show’s creators to re-engage with the material instead of simply running through the old formula to diminishing returns like Will & Grace or The X-Files. (I’ll also mention that Star Trek: Picard finally found a satisfying way to update Star Trek: The Next Generation, although it took until season three, which we’re also covering on Subject.)

• And that’s it for the unlikely return of Party Down. Six episodes felt like a cruel tease, but for the show to come back after thirteen years and be this good — while juggling the now-much-more-famous cast’s schedules and filming through Covid — is nothing short of a miracle. Bring Lizzy Caplan back for season four, and they’ll be one miracle shy of sainthood.