Judge Clark Douglas prefers to party sideways.
A moveable feast of laughs.
"Are we having fun yet?"
Facts of the Case
Ron Donald (Ken Marino, The State) is the manager of the Los Angeles branch of "Party Down," a large catering company. Ron has dreams of one day running his own "Soup R' Crackers" restaurant, but in the meantime he's making do with his current job. Most of his employees have dreams of doing something other than what they're doing, too. Constance (Jane Lynch, Best in Show) and Henry (Adam Scott, Tell Me You Love Me) are former actors who are now struggling to find work. Casey (Lizzy Caplan, Hot Tub Time Machine) is a would-be comedian pondering whether or not she should move to Vermont with her husband. Kyle (Ryan Hansen, Friday the 13th) is a part-time model hoping to get parts as a handsome hunk, while Roman (Martin Starr, Adventureland) dreams of selling his sci-fi screenplays. Will any of these despairing dreamers ever get their big break?
I'm one of many who was immensely impressed by the first two seasons of Rob Thomas' wonderful Veronica Mars, one of those uncommon shows that managed to get just about everything right…for a while, anyway. After a very mixed bag of a third season, Thomas moved from one relatively unsuccessful project to another. Good Behavior never made it past the pilot, Cupid was quickly cancelled and the ratings success 90210 was blasted by critics. Thankfully, we now have Party Down, a reasonably entertaining show that both audiences and critics seem to like. It's not one of the great comedies on television at the moment, but the first season is an entertaining ride with occasional flashes of brilliance.
The ensemble-driven, improvisatory nature of the comedy is nothing new for the Starz network, which has being trying with mixed success to create programming along these lines for a while now. Party Down is their most successful attempt yet, though still not up to the standard of something like The Office. Much like Ricky Gervais' original version of that show, Party Down specializes in comedy rooted in discomfort and misery. Though the show occasionally misjudges the line between comedy and flat-out tragedy, it generally does a pretty good job of riding that tricky line and providing simultaneous laughs and squirms.
The talented cast is primarily responsible for the show's success, as the players often take rather thin premises (a group of people catering some sort of wacky event) and find amusing ways to respond to the unlikely scenario they find themselves in. My personal favorite is Martin Starr as the geeky Roman, who in a moment of valiant dignity shoots down an attractive woman's flirtations by informing her of the explicit differences between the fantasy and sci-fi genres (which the woman clearly doesn't understand). Starr's deadpan delivery and spot-on facial expressions perfectly summarize the show's achingly funny tone. I'm also particularly fond of Jane Lynch, whose wacky comic stylings are always a treat. Alas, Lynch starts to play a smaller role as the season progresses and disappears altogether during the final episodes (due to accepting another delightful role on Fox's Glee).
Ken Marino and Ryan Hansen are essentially playing two different shades of complete idiot, which I find slightly less entertaining but which will probably be a highlight for many viewers. Marino is one of those bosses so absurdly dumb that one doubts such a person actually exists, but the actor's comic timing is good enough to compensate for this. Adam Scott and Lizzie Caplan are essentially the "straight men" of the program, forced to remain centers of sanity amidst the goofy behavior of everyone around them (they're essentially the Jim and Pam of Party Down). They don't get as many laughs as the rest of the cast, but they have a sweet and appealing chemistry together that makes us root for their on-and-off romance to work out.
The show is also blessed with a constant stream of guest stars, including Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) as a ferocious corporate boss, J.K. Simmons (Spider-Man) as a foul-mouthed film producer, Ken Jeong (Community) as a potential investor in Ron's business, Enrico Colantoni (Just Shoot Me) as an embittered suburban dad, Jason Dohring (Veronica Mars) as a Young Republican, Molly Parker (Deadwood) as one of Ron's old flames, and Rick Fox as himself.
The transfer is very solid throughout, offering a crisp and clean image with strong detail. While it's disappointing that the show didn't receive a hi-def release, this transfer gets the job done nicely. Audio is also strong, as the well-mixed sound design and low-key music blend nicely with the dialogue (which is appropriately kept front and center throughout the show). Supplements include two audio commentaries with Adam Scott and producers John Enbom and Dan Etheridge, two 2-minute throwaway featurettes called "Party Down: A Look Behind the Scenes" and "What is Party Down?," plus some brief outtakes and a gag reel. Meh.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The show uses the "no-limits" aspect of the pay-cable format rather gratuitously, giving us a show that heavily indulges in R-rated content that doesn't seem particularly necessary. I'm not opposed to the fact that the show contains some nudity and f-bombs and such, but too often these elements don't seem to be an organic part of the proceedings. The J.K. Simmons episode sometimes seems like little more than an excuse to fill an episode with as many f-words as possible, while the episode set at a pornography award ceremony indulges in a seemingly endless series of tediously raunchy gags. It's hard to put a finger on where the line is, but it's never good when it feels like characters aren't acting naturally but rather doing things that seem like transparent attempts to add some, "edge."
An inconsistent but tasty comedy with potential to grow, Party Down: Season One is worth a look but hasn't yet proved itself as essential viewing. Here's hoping it moves to the next level in season two.
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