Life After Cancellation: “Party Down”
Remembering Starz’s take on the ensemble workplace comedy, which only lasted twenty episodes.
Life After Cancellation is a new column focused on TV series that we believe deserved a second or third season, but have found a new life as cult hits on streaming services. In addition to making a case for their watchability, these essays explore why the shows remain relevant—or may have even become more so over time.
Back in the early aughts, The Office proved a surprising fact about American life: after a long day at work, all we wanted was to sit back and watch other people suffer through a similar—though considerably less functional—bureaucratic environment. It wasn’t long before the hectic workplace was swapped for the family home as the primary setting for American sitcoms, first on NBC (30 Rock, Parks and Recreation), then on other networks (FOX’s Brooklyn Nine-Nine, Comedy Central’s Workaholics, AMC’s Mad Men…and Breaking Bad, arguably). It seems like in recent years HBO’s hit a winning formula with their take on the genre as frantic political leaders, corporate family dynasties, and tech startups find new and funny ways of using expletives for thirty or sixty minute increments.
With each network scrambling to try their hand at the workplace comedy at the end of the aughts there were inevitably some casualties from the immediate post-Office era that we’re still mourning today. While your initial thought is probably Fat Actress, I think Party Down is the most tragic victim of premature sitcom cancellation since Arrested Development (though, conversely, it seems like it was ratings that did the show in rather lack of viewership). If The Office was the conservative workspace turned comically liberal, Party Down was the liberal workspace made considerably more comically liberal, as the titular catering team took on gigs at porn awards, shock-rock concerts, and mafia murder acquital parties with members of the team taking turns accidentally getting extremely high or drunk in pretty much every episode. Honestly it just seemed like the show hired an ensemble cast of actors based on their ability to play inebriated.
As a note on those actors/characters, here’s some quick shorthand: Henry (Adam Scott) and Casey (Lizzy Caplan) are Jim and Pam, Roman (Martin Starr) is Dwight, Ron (Ken Marino) is Michael, Ryan (Kyle Bradway) is Ryan, and Constance (Jane Lynch), Bobbie (Jennifer Coolidge), and Lydia (Megan Mullalley) are some confluence of the peripheral Office characters—maybe most Phyllis-like in the way their coworkers misguidedly look up to them as maternal figures. While most of these similarities are admittedly superficial—Roman likes nerdy shit, Ron is an incompetent boss, Ryan has zero self-awareness—both Party Down and the early seasons of The Office position the Henry/Jim character as the straightman, plotting the show around the acceptance of his fate at a miserable job solely because of a romantic interest. While the series finale of Party Down leaves things pretty open-ended, for a brief moment the show even echoed The Office’s overwhelmingly depressing plotline about Jim living out his worst case scenario: becoming his insufferable boss instead of following his dream and moving to Philly to become a sports writer.
Despite the cast nearly being duplicated character for character, I’d say that’s really the factor that positions Party Down as the most deserving successor to the unique brand of comedy seen in the early seasons of The Office. No other shows have depicted white collar working life as being so utterly bleak—seasons one and two of The Office remind me of Twin Peaks in the way they were able to sneak such heavy subject matter onto network TV. Yeah, there’s no boobs or “fucks” or decapitations or anything, but the TV-14 rating didn’t account for the lack of sympathy (though the show was undoubtedly written with empathy) toward the psychological damage undergone by viewers who’ve spent years rotting under fluorescent lights and downing Folgers with no end in sight.
Party Down, on the other hand, isn’t so subtle. First off, tons of boobs and “fucks” (no decapitations, though Ron gets his dong smashed by a phallus-shaped “Best Blowjob” award)—this is premium cable, after all. Second, it’s a show about people in Los Angeles who haven’t quote-unquote made it yet, which if you’ve spent any time in Hollywood you know just how hard it can be to watch this kind of person consistently try out for a part in a Judd Apatow movie in a room full of identical-looking Caseys and come up short each time. It’s a trope at this point—we’re not watching the show hoping they’ll land the part, it’s pretty clear that they won’t. But it’s this state of permanent limbo which serves as its own unique setting for this series about B-grade individuals to riff over in its own unique way.
It feels intentional, for example, when Rick Fox and Steve Guttenberg are introduced as the subjects of two episodes. In any other show you’d figure the show chose these cameos because Kobe and Arnold—or even Lamar Odom and Brian Dennehy—turned the offer down. For Party Down, every cultural reference feels at least one tier removed from any sense of relevancy, which effectively makes it just a bit funnier, if not entirely more relatable. Repo Man is consistently evoked in the first episode as if it was Citizen Kane to resident and emigrant Angeleno characters alike, while a running joke positions the failing actor Ryan as a recognized hero of cringey MySpace emo and straight-to-DVD cinema. It should feel like crushing dramatic irony that these caterers think they’re constantly on the verge of success, yet by the end of the series they seem pretty comfortable among third-choice-cameo celebrities.
Elsewhere the show thrives on mounting LA in-jokes, such as the way the caterers take industry-career phone calls on service-career time and introduce themselves to clients as actors and screenplay writers, seemingly forgetting they’re making small talk as employees of Party Down Catering. It’s established from the get-go that these are people with bleak lives striving to turn them into something better, and if anything, the contacts they make on the job over the course of the series turn them off to their dreams—from Casey fraternizing with a retired-comedian-turned-PTA-mom, to Henry re-entering the world of verbally abusive film producers, to Roman watching his hard sci-fi idol selling out in real time, to Ron actually achieving his goal and seeing it quickly go up in flames. At times it even feels a bit nostalgic, as if the creators (Paul Rudd among them) and cast miss the bottom-rung days while relating to characters like the suburban dad who used to watch Alex Cox movies and strips naked in front of his uptight, careerist neighbors as an act of punk-rock defiance in the debut episode’s final moments.
“Uptight, careerist neighbors” also feels a bit like a descriptor for the cast of The Office once the show shifts from a documentary feel to a sitcom-fantasy version of employment mid-series. It may have been for the best that Party Down was cancelled after only twenty episodes, as there’s only so many ways to write off and reintroduce a tight cast of six characters in order to explain why, say, Adam Scott was too busy with a new gig on a show that survives seven seasons to keep playing a failed actor. Instead the show somehow managed the near-impossible feat of abruptly concluding on a hopeful note without being cheesy. Rather than ending with a (perhaps more on-brand) whimper, it signed off with a bold, shameless “Are we having fun yet!?” FL