Yesterday, I mocked Starz… today I shall praise them. Because, even though I don’t know exactly what Starz is, they have managed to create what I would rank as a Top Three comedy currently on television, Party Down.
Top Three? I can hear the howls of protest echoing through the corridors of our nation. Yes, Top Three. Because, while television has been as strong as it’s ever been over the past decade, it’s in a bit of a lull right now. HBO supposedly is primed for a comeback, but as of now they’re desolate. Entourage is ridiculous, Curb should be put out of its misery (even a Seinfeld reunion couldn’t save it last season) and I haven’t heard shouting from the rooftops about Treme. The networks – I don’t even know where to begin. Oh yeah… it’s 8:30 on a Tuesday, and until a moment ago I totally forgot Lost was on. While it hasn’t been a complete disaster of a season, it’s a pretty stark difference from the excitement I felt on Premiere Night. The Office has Jumped the Shark twelve times, and 30 Rock is super-unreliable (but still great at times). Thank god for Community and Parks & Recreation (the other comedies in the Top Three). I think CBS and FOX still exist, but I’ll have to wait for football season to be sure.
But, even in stronger times, I think that Party Down would stand out. First of all, one of the producer/writers is Ruddzie.
Who wouldn’t want to bring as much of him into their homes on a weekly basis as possible? The real driving force behind Party Down, however, seems to be Rob Thomas, the creator of Veronica Mars. He uses many of his regulars, so most episodes have a V.M. connection (I’ll take The Dilemma’s word on this). Between the excellent casting and the subtle writing, Thomas has created the rare television comedy that manages to be dark without being morose.
The plot revolves around a group of caterers, most of whom are aspiring actors (it’s set in L.A.) The protagonist is played by Adam Scott (the male nurse in Knocked Up), who quit acting before the series started. His big break was saying a catch phrase in a beer commercial, which he never ceases to be reminded of. His love interest is played by Lizzy Caplan (the arty chick from Mean Girls), who is attractive while still being a realistic catch for a 37-year-old caterer. Ken Marino (Wet Hot American Summer) plays their boss, who is trying to go straight but can’t help falling back into his drunken ways. The group is rounded out by Martin Starr, Jane Lynch and Ryan Hansen as fuck-up strivers.
Each episode takes place at a different catering job. This allows for a natural way to introduce guest stars, who have ranged from Kristin Bell to Steve Guttenberg. They’re rarely names, just “That Guys”, character actors that are always strong and welcome. Because the episodes are random snapshots of a group of co-workers, the plot mostly advances off-screen. This helps the show to avoid The Office trap, where the comedy is overwhelmed by the machinations of romantic sub-plots. It’s the best case of a show being able to create stand-alone episodes while also having a semblance of a narrative arc in a long time, if not ever.
The biggest drawback? Starz itself. Although all the episodes are available on Netflix On-Demand, nobody knows about the show. The network’s lack of pull means that they’re constantly losing characters. Jane Lynch left halfway through the first season to do Glee (and was replaced by Megan Mullally, the biggest character slot drop since Tiffani Amber-Theissen for Vanessa Marcil). And Adam Scott has just been snagged by Parks & Rec for next season. So see Party Down while you can… it’ll be forgotten sooner than Ned’s Atomic Dustbin, but it isn’t the show’s fault.