Monday, April 18, 2011

SitS: Party Down - Season 2

Basic Info:
Party Down - Season 2
10 Episodes
Originally aired Spring 2010, Starz

When I started watching the first season of Party Down, it didn't immediately grab me as a special show. It took nearly half of the show's ten episodes to get into the world, learn about the characters -- their behavior, attitude, each individual's frustrated ambitions -- and see where its serialized elements were headed. This style is rare in half-hour comedies, at least on this side of the Atlantic, where our sitcoms come in 24-episode bunches with generally little serialized action demanding your attention week-to-week. But by the end, I thought it worked brilliantly, which means I had very high expectations going into this second (and final) season.

And regarding this discussion of Party Down, it's kind of tough to talk about one season without getting into the other, so bear that in mind as we go along. I'll try to be as spoiler-lite as I can but, well, you've been warned.

Party Down is a pretty simple show, on paper. It revolves around a team of workers at the titular SoCal catering company. The central character, Henry Pollard (Adam Scott) is a failed actor, primarily known for a beer commercial where he said the obnoxious catchphrase "Are we having fun yet?" At the start of the series, Henry has largely given up on his dreams and returned to Party Down, where he once worked as Team Leader. There, he works with a crew of other Hollywood has-beens—or, more accurately, never-wases—and the new Team Leader, former burn-out/drunk Ron Donald (Ken Marino). Each episode takes place at a single Party Down–catered event, with little-to-no action elsewhere.

The premise doesn't sound like much, but the interplay between the characters really makes the show sing. In Season One, the Party Down team includes: Casey (Lizzy Caplan), a snarky comedian; Roman (Martin Starr), a nerdy sci-fi screenwriter; Kyle (Ryan Hansen), a vain, stupid, and shallow model/actor/musician; and Constance (Jane Lynch), a wacky, sexed-up former extra and actress. In Season Two, Constance has left the team, and is replaced by Lydia (Megan Mullally), a naive, lonely stage mother. The characters' backstabbing, sniping, and conniving, along with their basic ineptitude at their jobs and the insanity of most of their clients, usually creates the extremely awkward and uncomfortable situations from which the show derives most of its humor.

What makes the show really work are the intricately-plotted storylines at play throughout the season. This means that, while you COULD come into Season Two cold and probably find your feet, you're missing out on the long-term emotional impact you get from following things along from the beginning.

At its heart, Party Down is a show about ambition and the importance of knowing when to follow a dream, when to give it up, and what happens if your dreams are taken from you. All of the characters desperately want to be somebody other than who they are, and they're content to act the part until they get there. Even Henry seems to be acting the part of someone who can accept that his ambitions are unrealistic.

That Henry tends to be very defeated and cynical about his dreams contrasts him with the other characters, who still have unreasonably high expectations for themselves. Even Roman, who is probably a bigger cynic than Henry, still treats himself as somehow being above-the-fray and better than the people at whom he sneers. The show wrings a lot of laughs out of how far the characters will go to reach their dreams. Kyle seems more than happy to sleep with anyone who'll help his career along, and also tries out for basically any part that comes his way, regardless of how good of a fit he is or whether he even understands what the role's about. Casey is willing to leave everyone she cares about in order to get a shot, having done so prior to the series and again after Season One.

But if the show were just about clueless losers following their delusions, it wouldn't be a very remarkable program. That sort of thing could very easily spiral into contempt for the characters, making the audience pity them more than we relate to them. I won't pretend there's no pity in Party Down, or that we ever really expect these people to win, but because we always feel for the characters and want them—or most of them, at least—to succeed, the show deftly avoids this trap. And, as I mentioned before, it's the relationships between the characters, the arcs they experience via the show's subtle serialization, that give us our rooting interest in their lives.

Party Down's best episodes tend to be the ones where all of the characters are actively involved, either pursuing their own goals at the cost of the team's catering performance, or forming short-lived (and typically insincere) alliances with one another out of spite or retribution. Roman and Kyle's antagonistic relationship is one of the best, here. Roman is too smart for his own good, but perhaps not as smart as he thinks, while Kyle is far more naive than he realizes. The myriad ways they set each other up and knock each other down tend to provide many of the show's funniest bits.

The show's biggest relationship, Henry and Casey's on-and-off thing, is one of those rare TV pairings that we actually care about. A lot of this comes from Scott and Caplan's great chemistry and ability to act off of each other. It's funny, too, that so much of their relationship is ultimately determined by their career ambitions. Casey's departure at the end of Season One sets Henry up to take over for Ron as the new Team Leader, seemingly indicating his final acceptance of his dreams' death. Casey's return in Season Two seems to give us renewed hopes, hopes buoyed by the season's final scenes. We're invited to discern the difference between dreams (and relationships) abandoned out of fear and self-pity, and those not abandoned in spite of evidence that they should be. But, ultimately, it's the dreams that make these characters who they are.

Of course, no discussion of ambition, here, could be complete without talking about Ron Donald, the only non-showbiz member of the Party Down team. As Marino plays him, Ron is an earnest, overly-emotional average Joe, a guy who used to skate by as a funny, drunk screw-up, and now realizes that that won't get you anywhere in the real world. Throughout Season One, he dreams of opening Soup 'R Crackers, a fast-food soup franchise, as a way of making up for his screw-up past. When that goal flames out mere months after it is realized, Ron crashes again, returning to both Party Down and his boozy, drug-addled ways. Ron is the character who may least deserve his goals—he is, after all, an idiot who is incapable of running even a team, let alone a company—but who we most want to watch succeed. His mid-season turn-around, also related to regaining the pride that comes from having ambition, is heartening, and the conclusion to his arc is satisfying if not unexpected.

Finally, I can't really talk about Party Down without saying that it probably ended too soon. The show was cancelled after two seasons, in spite of near-universal critical acclaim and strong online viewing numbers. The season's finale works as a series finale, in that it ties up most of the lingering stories and character arcs in a way that makes sense. And really, though the show had hit its stride and was firing on all cylinders throughout the season, it's hard to imagine the premise going on forever. You'd hate to watch a show that once felt fresh and interesting descend into almost self-parodic repetition when dragged out for too long (US version of The Office, I'm looking in your direction). That Office comparison is apt on a few other levels. Drug use/drinking aside, Ron Donald is very much a Michael Scott character, while Henry could be seen as a Jim, and Casey as a feistier Pam, and so on down the line. Perhaps by keeping the show's seasons short, and by being culled in its prime, Party Down avoided an inevitable fall a season or two down the road.

Best Episode - Episode 5: "Steve Guttenberg's Birthday"
It's pretty tough to choose a "best" episode this season, but "Steve Guttenberg's Birthday" wins out because of the way it plays all of the characters not only off of themselves, but off of Guttenberg's exaggerated self-portrayal. Kyle uses Guttenberg to impress a girl, while Lydia mistakenly thinks Guttenberg is attracted to her, and Casey and Henry's relationship finally gets rekindled during an "acting competition"–fueled reading of Roman's script. Christopher Mintz-Plasse is great as Roman's writing partner, as well.

Worst Episode - Episode 2: "Precious Lights Preschool Auction"
Knowing that there were no "bad" episodes this season, I tried for a long time to come up with ones that either didn't work as well, or felt slightly flat, story-wise. While still a good episode, "Precious Lights" is probably the weakest of a strong bunch. Ron's juvenile retaliatory pranks, wherein he tries to undermine Henry the way Henry did when Ron led the team, didn't do as much for me as some of the show's more lightly-played moments. Still, any episode featuring J.K. Simmons can't be all bad!

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