TV: Party Down (Season 3)

The timing just wasn’t right for Party Down when it arrived in 2009, too early for the Peak TV boom that might have ensured its longevity. That actually suits the theme of this brilliant, underdog comedy full of characters for whom the timing is never right. Canceled before it found an audience, the show caught on when viewers belatedly discovered the show’s darkly upbeat charms, along with the fact that it boasted an exceptional cast (Lizzy Caplan, Ryan Hansen, Jane Lynch, Ken Marino, Megan Mullally, Adam Scott, Martin Starr) whose stock didn’t fully skyrocket until after the fact. Cue the Hollywood reboot machine, and Party Down is back—quirkily enough on Starz, a suitably obscure landing spot. Unlike most TV reunion tours, though, the passage of time hasn’t rendered it unrecognizable or stripped away its strengths. It’s almost as if the characters have been going about their business all these years, slowly aging, hopes gradually eroding as they continue to futilely, hilariously pursue their dreams. It not only hasn’t lost a step, it rejoins the fray in brilliant fighting trim.

Party Down revolves around a low-rent Hollywood catering company staffed by aspiring artists whose tantalizing proximity to success only exacerbates their miserable struggle. The only one who truly cares about catering is chronic fuck-up Ron Donald (the inspired Marino), still at the helm, striving to realize his mundane food-service dreams while surrounded by disinterested employees desperate to escape to greener pastures. Season three begins with an event for Kyle (Hansen), whose acting career looks to be on the upswing when he’s cast in a major superhero franchise. With Ron, of course, catering the event, the party brings back as guests Henry (Scott), Constance (Lynch), and Lydia (Mullally). The clumsy reunion situates the former crew’s new lives: Henry is a married English teacher, Constance a wealthy heiress, and Lydia a successful manager for her celebrity daughter. Only cynical science fiction writer Roman (Starr) still spins his wheels at Party Down, while Casey (Caplan) is absent, having moved on to a successful acting career. After more than a decade, there’s no remotely logical reason for the old crew to all work together again as caterers, so the reboot executes clever logistics to maneuver them back onstage, a feat it manages with casual, impressive efficiency. Meanwhile, new members of the crew—integrated with remarkable effortlessness—immediately contributes to the hijinks. First, there’s the energetic Sackson (Tyrel Jackson Williams), an aspiring Instagram influencer. Later, pretentious wannabe celebrity chef Lucy (Zoë Chao) joins the crew, her perverse gastronomical creations serving up plenty of laughs.

Season three lasts a mere six episodes, which zip by far too quickly. But even as the landscape has changed, Party Down feels like it never left. The brilliant music, razor-sharp editing, and first-rate comic timing are just as perfectly paced, and if anything, the gap years have added depth to its underlying thematic focus on artistic perseverance in the face of hopeless odds. Of course, Caplan’s presence is sorely missed, but her character’s alluded-to, faraway success is leveraged to excellent story effect, giving the depressed strivers another benchmark to measure their failures against. Meanwhile, Jennifer Garner steps in capably as Evie, a producer who quickly becomes a romantic interest for Henry—and whose casting clout proves to be a source of more push-pull, acting-passion tension for him. The old favorites step back into their roles effortlessly, while the new folks more than hold their own. Scott’s reliable straight-man brilliance is once again central, but it’s Marino who deserves award recognition for his masterful, instant return to form as the iconically inept Ron.

Whenever old shows are dusted off and re-launched, there’s always the risk they might sully their reputation. Party Down not only doesn’t do that, but builds on its legacy, reminding us why we mourned its too-soon departure. Watching season three was a sheer joy, and I’m crossing my fingers it truly catches on this time.

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