The surest sign we’re in the new and improved Golden Age Of Television: Two of the most desolate outposts on the cable dial, once reliable hosts of the major studios’ least-vaunted assets, are suddenly responsible for some of the best drama and comedy on any network. First came AMC with Mad Men and Breaking Bad, and now there’s Starz’s Party Down, a brilliant half-hour comedy series that understands the limits and possibilities of working in the cable hinterlands, and builds the show around them. It’s far too raunchy and irreverent for a major network, yet its simple, low-budget, down-and-dirty aesthetic doesn’t square with the cinematic polish of an HBO, either. Creators John Enbom, Dan Etheridge, Rob Thomas (of Veronica Mars fame), and Paul Rudd have crafted something uniquely Starz, a frugal office comedy where the office changes every week, but the core elements of a great cast and tart, prankish, painfully funny writing remain evergreen.
On the special features for the Party Down: Season One box set, Enbom and Etheridge jokingly refer to the show as “crealism”—comedy plus realism—but while some episodes drift into wackiness, they’re firmly grounded in the dashed dreams and humbling labors of a Hollywood catering company. Donning crisp white shirts and shiny pink bowties, Party Down employees are all never-was or never-will-bes who log time serving hors d’oeuvres while their creative careers are on permanent hiatus. Naturally, this doesn’t make them terribly motivated to do their jobs well, in spite of the pleadings of their boss Ken Marino, who dreams of parlaying his earnings into a “Soup R’ Crackers” franchise. Adam Scott plays the closest thing to a straight man, a failed actor who retreated to a bartending job when an early commercial appearance didn’t lead to bigger roles. (Guests tend to remember his catchphrase, which he’s forced to repeat through gritted teeth.) The cast also includes the constantly bickering Martin Starr and Ryan Hansen as a would-be science-fiction screenwriter and a pretty-boy actor, respectively, Jane Lynch as the erstwhile star of such timeless classics as Dingleberries and Scream Weaver, and Lizzy Caplan as a frustrated comedian and Scott’s casual love interest.
Each episode of Party Down takes place at a different event—an “investors dinner” hosted by a sleazy huckster, a Sweet 16 shindig thrown by a foul-tongued movie producer (J.K. Simmons), a singles seminar for oldies—which keeps the show out of the stale environs of an office setting, and gives the writers and cast something new to improvise around every week. When the comedy isn’t overtly zany, it usually involves the characters confronting their own humiliating failure, like an episode where Marino winds up catering his own 20-year high-school reunion. At the same time, Party Down isn’t above an occasional side trip into the surreal: In the funniest episode of season one, “Celebrate Rick Sargulesh,” the gang caters a get-together for Armenian gangsters (including a revelatory Steven Weber, with lazy eye and half-buttoned shirt) who somehow know every obscure project they’ve ever done. The event seems likely to get them killed, but for one strange and magical night, they’re alternate-universe celebrities.
Key features: Enbom, Etheridge, and Scott contribute loose, funny, informative commentaries on two episodes. A pair of two- or three-minute promotional featurettes are fairly useless, but the outtakes and gag reel highlight the actors’ improvisational prowess, and consequent difficulty in keeping straight faces during takes.