Films and TV shows have told countless tales of people moving to Hollywood and making something of themselves, becoming rich and famous, and living happily ever after. And while those do happen, it is far more common for people to get there and utterly fail. Party Down chooses to focus on those stories.
Party Down has often been dubbed the “anti-Entourage,” and in some ways the comparison is appropriate. Rather than engaging in constant wish fulfillment, the Party Down writers choose to dwell on harsh reality.
The concept for the show started with a simple question: What would happen to the Verizon “can you hear me now” guy when that well runs dry? People would recognize him for one distinct ad campaign, but he still would struggle to make ends meet. He would get all the pitfalls of stardom without any of the perks.
Filling that role is Henry Pollard (played by Adam Scott), who was in a series of beer commercials with the catchphrase “Are we having fun yet?” He occasionally is spotted by people who recognize him, and the one line for which he is famous now haunts him.
Henry’s rise to semi-fame and then meteoric fall to normalcy have left him jaded and unenthusiastic about pretty much everything, and he is forced to go back to his old job as a caterer. There he is surrounded by a pack of starry-eyed dreamers who all are waiting for their big break.
Joining Henry on the catering staff are aging actress Constance (Jane Lynch), hard sci-fi writer Roman (Martin Starr), wannabe comedian Casey (Lizzy Caplan), self-believed renaissance man Kyle (Ryan Hansen) and boss Ron (Ken Marino), whose only desire is to open his own soup restaurant.
All those staff members are chasing their own version of the American dream, and they all are in various stages of failure. Yet they keep fighting the good fight, convinced they will one day make it.
The majority of the show’s humor stems from juxtaposition, starting with a downtrodden main character surrounded by hopeless career romantics and extending to their daily job.
Part of the genius of Party Down is that it technically is a workplace comedy, but never feels like it. The workplace changes every episode as the catering company works a new event surrounded by new people.
The result is that every episode feels fresh and unique. Workplace comedies tend to have a particular shelf life because they become stale after years of the same people stuck in the same place. But Party Down keeps everything fluid, which allows the writers to think of new and ridiculous places to put their characters.
Roman is lonely and sex-starved, so the crew works a porn party. Ron is constantly looking for validation, so he works his own high school reunion. Constance and Kyle have overinflated senses of self worth, so they work a party packed with just about the only people who have actually seen their movies.
The writers have a deep understanding of all their characters, allowing them to create situations specifically geared around each individual. And since they can choose to set each episode anywhere they want, there is no limit to their creativity.
All of the comedy of Party Down comes organically. It comes from the situations in which the characters are placed, their reactions to those situations and how they play off each other. The writing is witty, but never feels forced. It doesn’t follow the simple “setup-joke-punchline-repeat” formula that is the bane of most sitcoms’ existence.
Because each of the characters is suffering through their own private battles, it is much easier to relate to them. The series may be set in Hollywood, but the theme of failure is universal.
It helps that Party Down has one of the most talented crews for a comedy in recent memory, both in front of and behind the camera. It features a writing team of Paul Rudd (yes, that Paul Rudd), Rob Thomas, Dan Etheridge and John Enbom (the trio responsible for Veronica Mars), and direction by Fred Savage (The Wonder Years) and Bryan Gordon (Curb Your Enthusiasm).
In addition to the superbly talented main cast already mentioned, Megan Mullally replaced Lynch in Season 2, and recurring guest stars included Kristen Bell, J.K. Simmons, Jennifer Coolidge and Ken Jeong.
Weirdly enough, Party Down shares its blueprint for greatness with Game of Thrones. The two may seem diametrically opposite, but they have more in common than you would think.
Both present a story that takes place in a kind of fantasy world. In Party Down it’s Hollywood, in Game of Thrones it’s a fictional place. But with those fantasy worlds as the backdrop, both focus on brutal realism with relatable and understandable characters.
In Party Down, part of you wants the characters to succeed because they’re easy to root for. But another part of you hopes they keep failing because they’re just so damn entertaining as they do it.
**Note: I am well aware that this is the most obscure of the three shows in this “Greatness Analyzed” series. For that reason, I highly recommend you check out Party Down, currently available on Netflix’s Instant Stream, if you haven’t already.**