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Party Down: Season 1

Starz / Anchor Bay // Unrated // April 6, 2010
List Price: $29.97 [Buy now and save at Amazon]

Review by Adam Tyner | posted March 22, 2010 | E-mail the Author

"Ron, seriously, your team are like animals. That's gonna be strike one. One more and I'm going to report you to Alan Duk."
"You know, there are three strikes in baseball."
"This isn't fucking baseball, weasel face: it's catering."

So yeah, you've suffered through Entourage before, right?

A bad day in the world o' Entourage means you're leeching off a guy who's only pulling in a half-mil this month instead of seven figures, and you're only tag-teaming a couple of busty, double-digit-IQ co-eds instead of the line circling around the block like usual. It's an adolescent male fantasy about money, booze, pot, and fuckin' where nothing can really ever go wrong. Party Down, meanwhile, aims its cameras over to the other side -- the, um, real side -- of life in Los Angeles. This is a show about failure...about watching the hopes and dreams you'd spent a lifetime building up slowly smolder and burn. The staff of Party Down have either had their dreams mercilessly crushed, are coasting on Z-list stardom that's decades behind in the rear view mirror, or are just too young and wide-eyed to realize that what they call a 'career' is slowly limping along on the road to nowhere. But hey...! They still have bills to pay. The cliché may be waiting tables, but no, these guys are all in the catering biz.

"You owe me ten bucks."
"For what?"
"Baretta prop gun, season one. I was right. Pay up."
"This doesn't prove anything. They called him Baretta because he was Italian. His name was Baretta, not because he had a Baretta. Where did you get this?"
"Souvenir. I had a line on the show. 'Lookin's free. Touchin'll cost ya.'"
"You played a hooker on Baretta?"
"I played an aspiring musician."
"Who says 'Touching'll cost ya'? Sounds like a hooker."
"She was a young musician who was turning tricks to pay her bills because her abusive boyfriend had taken her life savings."
"I thought you said it was just one line."
"You see, that's the challenge -- to create this complex character with a single line."
"Constance, what was your character's name?"
"If her name was 'Hooker', Constance, then she was a hooker."
"No, it's like...I'm a waiter."
"You are a waiter."
"No, I'm an actor."

Ron (Ken Marino) is the only one on his team who's never really had stars in his eyes. He's kind of always been the type to aim low. In high school, his life's goal was to collect more frogs than anyone in the world. Now...? He just wants to open his own Soup 'r Crackers franchise. Y'know, all-you-can-eat soup: the fastest growing non-coffee, non-poultry franchise in So-Cal. Sure, he used to booze it up with the best of 'em, but in the words of The Bard, now Ron has his feet on the ground and is reaching for the stars. Working under him...? Well, there's Constance (Jane Lynch), who you might remember in blink-and-oops-you-missed-it parts in flicks like Cannonball Run 2 a few decades back. Dim-witted pretty boy Kyle (Ryan Hansen) is kind of a triple threat -- male model, actor, and soulful musician -- not that he's good enough at any of 'em to really be considered a 'threat' so much. Roman (Martin Starr), meanwhile, is a self-destructive prick who has a gaggle of unfinished novels and some unfilmed sci-fi scripts under his belt. Oh, and this is hard dragons or magic or any of that bullshit. We're talkin' wormholes and...I don't know, oversized prehistoric birds or whatever. Then there's Casey (Lizzy Caplan), a snarky, sarcastic comedienne who can't get a gig to save her life and whose marriage is on the rocks to boot. Depending on who you ask, she's a 6.8 / 10. Or a 6.9. Maybe a 6.8.9. Not bad. Last up is the new guy, Henry (Adam Scott). He's the guy in the beer ads who said that thing, remember? Henry used to work with Ron eight years back, but since a boozey catchphrase killed his career, now he's back to tending bar.

Two of my favorite comedies of the past ten years are the British version of The Office and The Venture Bros., and one of the things that Party Down has in common with both of 'em is failure. These are all people who aimed for greatness and, for whatever reason, never even came a little bit close to making it. This isn't exactly the easiest balance to strike, lobbing out a premise that could be really downbeat and littering it with characters who aren't so much likeable or sympathetic. I mean, most of the Party Down crew are self-absorbed and delusional, and they can barely seem to tolerate each other. The only one who wants to be there is Ron; pretty much everyone else thinks they're still on their way to stardom and look at this gig as just something to suffer through until they make it. Henry's pretty much given up on life, and his only dream these days is that the bottom won't fall out any further than it already has. Casey isn't all that far behind him. It'd be so easy for Party Down to veer over the be an unending pit of bleakness, misery, and despair. With a cast and an immensely talented gaggle of producers like this on-board, though, even a premise this dark can come across as deliriously fun.

"Old people freak me out. Have you ever seen it?"
"Seen what?"
"Have you?"
"Disney World. I was eight years old. I got sick. I went back to my hotel...walked in on my grandparents. They didn't notice."
"They just kept...their mouths and their hands. It was like watching a mummy battle."

I'm really tempted to say that Party Down might be my favorite comedy on TV right now. Hell, the pedigree of the show is kind of enough of a review right there. Jane Lynch -- Glee, Arrested Development, and just about everything with Christopher Guest's name on the bill -- walks away and steals every last scene she's in as an aging, oblivious has-beennever-was. Martin Starr and Lizzy Caplan are both alums from the Apatow camp. Both have the indescribably brilliant Freaks and Geeks under their belts, Starr's been doing terrific work in Apatow's past few movies as well as knocking it out of the park in Adventureland, and the gorgeous Lizzy Caplan is almost always the best thing about every movie and TV show she touches.

Veronica Mars was kind of the boon of my life and existence for a while there, and rabid fans of that show will froth at the mouth tuning into Party Down. I mean, the show's the brainchild of Rob Thomas and two of Veronica Mars' other executive producers. If you're the type to pay attention to the credits, you'll probably recognize co-creator and executive producer Paul Rudd. A mainstay in just about everything Judd Apatow touches, Rudd also had a particularly memorable guest spot on Veronica Mars. Ditto for stars Jane Lynch and Adam Scott, the latter of whom played a skeevy teacher accused of fooling around with one of his students on Veronica Mars but winds up being the heart of the show here. Ken Marino (The State) and Ryan Hansen both had very prominent recurring roles on VM (I can stop spelling out the name of the show now, right?) as well. Even a lot of the guest stars on Party Down -- Joey Lauren Adams, Enrico Colantoni, Jason Dohring, Alona Tal, Ryan Pinkston, Ed Begley Jr., Martin Yu, Ryan Devlin, Daran Norris, Jeffrey Vincent Parise, and ::audible gasp!:: Kristen Bell herself -- all popped up on Veronica Mars at one point or another too.

Pretty much everyone with a line has either an episode of Veronica Mars or at least one Judd Apatow movie on his/her filmography, and a lot of 'em can check off both. To rattle off a few other guest stars of note: Marilu Henner as the host of a senior singles mixer, Stormy Daniels playing a not-herself porn star, J.K. Simmons as a hypervulgar producer type, Breckin Meyer doing his best Matthew McConaughey, fratboy-turned-salesman Rob Corddry, Russian mobster Steven Weber, Deadwood's Molly Parker, and George Takei as himself, but hold off on any questions you might have rattling around about Vulcan mind melds.

"'A Terror Bird'! That is...that's so dumb."
"Oh my God! You have no idea what you're talking about."
"Um, a terrifying bird...?"
"Wrong! I mean...yes. It's called a phorusrhacid. It's a ten foot tall, prehistoric, man-eating bird, okay? Velociraptors were, what, maybe six feet tall at the most? And Jurassic Park made a billion dollars?"
"Who's afraid of a big bird?"
"You would be if it was picking out your guts. A giant beak!"
"Constance, how big would a bird have to be for you to be, like, super-scared of it?"
"I don't, a hundred feet? Two hundred?"
"That doesn't exist!"
"I don't know. You know, I'm sorry, Kyle. I can't think straight right now, and that's such a good question."

Party Down just...clicks with my particular sense of humor too. Like the British spin on The Office, it doesn't mug all that often for easy, oversized laughs the way comedies generally do, and yet I frequently found myself howling with laughter. The biggest laughs often don't come from pratfalls or boobies or whatever either but from reaction shots. Just the sight of someone pulling out a camera phone at the right time or suddenly cutting over to a row of quietly horrified people kills me. The backbone of the series is a gleamingly sharp, devastating wit, and to think that so much of it was pulled off without a dedicated writing staff or was even completely improvised is kind of unreal to me. That I'm bombarding this review with such an obnoxious number of quotes probably says enough about how much I dug the writing right there.

The fact that this is a workplace comedy where the workplace is somewhere completely different every episode also infuses Party Down with a lot of energy. The constantly changing backdrop keeps things fresh, never giving any dust the chance to settle and opening the door to entirely new gags and scenarios every time out. There's also something kind of intriguing about the fact that we never see any of these guys off the clock. If there's any sort of Party Down homebase, we never get to see it. There's not so much as a peek of any of 'em out and about, and the show's cameras are never lugged inside their apartments. These characters are developed completely in the context of their mundane, minimum wage catering gigs, and they're still fleshed out as well as anyone on any other show on TV. A network sitcom would try to wrap everything up in a neat, tidy bow just before the end credits roll, and no matter how terrible things get, those sorts of shows would still be all sunny and cheery at the end. Party Down, on the other hand, kind of revels in starting bleak and ending with things even worse, most memorably in the really subversive final moments of "Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen".

Party Down also deserves some extra credit for its sense of economy. The pilot shrugs off any long, meandering setup and opts instead to dive right in...we pick up on the characters and basic premise as it screams along. Instead of dragging out some "will they or won't they?" romance angle between Casey and Henry like The Office did for a few seasons there, they're kneedeep in at least some kind of relationship almost immediately. "Will they?" isn't as interesting a question as "well, where do you go from here?", and neither of them seem to want to answer that, exactly. Even with as many parallels as can be drawn between Party Down and either incarnation of The Office, I do appreciate that Ron isn't a grating, infantile prick like Michael Scott or David Brent. He's a serial screw-up just like those other two guys, but part of Ron's problem is that he's too nice. None of his employees particularly like or respect him, and no matter what approach Ron takes when playing the role of boss, they ignore him half the time, leaving Ron to do a lot of the heavy lifting himself. I think everyone knows the sting of really wanting to achieve something and watching helplessly as it soars completely out of reach, and that familiarity -- coupled with the really sharp writing and stellar cast -- makes me kind of relate to these characters even if most of 'em aren't anyone I'd actually want to pal around with in real life. I'm kind of glad I don't know them, but I do want to see what happens...

"Don't just stand there. C'mon, Henry, you can be two things in life: you can be an achiever, or you can be a fuck-up. "
"Okay. And, uh, which one are you being right now?"
"I'm an achiever!"
"Okay, then I'm definitely a fuck-up, and I gotta say, standing here, watching you lighting a flag on fire in the parking lot, I feel kind of okay about it."

I know this maybe isn't the most normal thing to praise, but I think the fact that Party Down only has ten episodes in its first season also winds up working very much in its favor. A longer run means it probably would've fumbled something along the way or hammered some of the same points home a little too frequently. With so few episodes, it practically doesn't have a chance to make any mistakes. There's not a swing-and-a-miss scattered around anywhere any in here. Party Down finds it footing pretty much from word one, it ends with a hell of a closer, and everything sandwiched in between is terrific too. All killer, no filler, like the kids say. Maybe they say that. I don't know. The highlights are far, far, far too many to list, really. To rattle off a few, though...? Ron ruins a flag from an Iraqi battle that was supposed to be a gift for Arnold Schwarzenegger, so he grabs a fresh one off the pole and tries to battle-age it in a parking lot. After struggling for so long to get his dreams of all-you-can-eat soup off the ground, Ron looks like he might be able to scare up the start-up capital he needs at a porn awards afterparty. All he has to do know... Henry may have given up on the whole acting thing, but he starts to see a glimmer of hope again when Party Down caters an overpriced Sweet Sixteen party for a big-shot producer's daughter. 'Course, they have to deal with the fact that it's a $100K+ party where, like, twelve people have bothered to show up and the girl of honor won't come out of her room. Even though most of the Party Down crew has pretty sketchy credentials in Tinseltown, what little they have finally gets appreciated in "Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh". The fact that they're being honored by Eastern bloc mobsters celebrating a badnik who skirted past a murder rap...? Eh. They'll take whatever attention they can get. Ron gets kind of short thrift in that episode since he's the only one on the team who's never had stars in his eyes, exactly, but he makes up for it with the follow-up, "James Rolf High School Twentieth Reunion". Yup, Ron caters his own reunion, and if it doesn't seem as if things are exactly looking up for him now...yikes. He had it even worse in high school.

"You're Edgar Allen Poe?"
"Yeah, the graphic novel. It's the writer, but he's killin' vampires. It's Leonard's next movie!"
"Wow. You're Edgar Allen Poe?"
"Yeah, fuckin' up vampires in Old Baltimore."

So anyway, here's the short version: Party Down is the best comedy on TV that you're not watching. No, no, I'm not judging you or anything. That's what DVD's for, after you a chance to catch up. There's nothing about Party Down that isn't perfect, really, from one of the best casts on television to its razor-sharp wit. Workplace comedies have been a mainstay on TV for ages, but Party Down continually bucks every cliché it can along the way, never settling for anything obvious or predictable. Try it. You'll like it. If you don't...well, you're wrong. Sorry. Highly Recommended.

Since Party Down made the rounds in high definition on Starz, it's kind of a drag that there isn't a Blu-ray release to go along with this DVD set. For the most part, though, the show still looks great in standard-def. Party Down was shot natively on HD video, so it kind of follows that the photography is clean, crisp, and clear, and detail remains consistently strong throughout. The only hiccup that leapt out at me on the first disc is some ringing around the opening titles, and for all I know, that's an incredibly thin border that DVD just doesn't have the resolution to pull off all that well.

The authoring gets pretty sloppy once disc two rolls around, though. A lot of patterns and smaller objects in the background are saddled with a shimmering, overly aliased appearance, and even the text in the credits winds up looking extremely distorted. The characters in the foreground generally still come through really well, though. The first episode on the disc seems to skirt past all this well enough, but it's sort of a mess from "Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh" and on. Strangely, disc two piles on fewer episodes than the first one, and it's a dual-layer disc, so it's not as if it didn't have enough breathing room or anything. I'm not really sure how this could've made it past any sort of Q/A pass unless pretty much everyone wound up falling asleep at the wheel.

Whatever it is that's going on in disc two -- sloppy downconversion from HD to standard-def, clunky compression, or something else entirely -- is kind of disappointing, but it's not even close to being a dealbreaker. Party Down ought to look at least a little better than this on DVD, but it's still a nice looking set overall.

Oh, and all ten episodes from the first season of Party Down are presented in anamorphic widescreen at their original aspect ratio of 1.78:1.

Party Down serves up a set of Dolby Digital 5.1 (448kbps) tracks that fit the approach of the show perfectly. The mix is definitely oriented primarily around its dialogue. Rooted in the center channel, none of the line readings or improvised quips are ever drowned out or even a little bit tough to discern. Party Down isn't exactly peppered with hyperaggressive split-surrounds or anything, but the multichannel setup does a pretty solid job fleshing out a sense of atmosphere...y'know, clinking silverware, the electric hum of an ice machine, reverb when someone at one of these shindigs grabs the mic, gusts of wind, and...hey, fireworks! Bass response is pretty subdued, but there's just enough heft to the low-end for the music to sound reasonably punchy, especially the throbbing bass at the Sin Say Shun porn awards afterparty. The six-channel audio isn't anything all that finger-wagglingly incendiary or whatever, but Party Down is intensely driven by its dialogue, and the sound design on this DVD set complements that approach just about flawlessly. The only misstep I could spot is that a few shouted lines sound kind of clipped, but that's really minor and happens much too infrequently to really gripe about.

Aside from a couple of commentary tracks, the only other audio option is a set of optional English subtitles (SDH).

Star Adam Scott and executive producers John Enbom and Dan Etheridge hammer out audio commentaries for two episodes: "Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen" and "Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh". A lot of their comments for "Taylor..." tackle the series as a whole: the six years it took to get Party Down off the ground, where the original concept came from, spelling out how the show is lit and shot, tearing through everyone in the cast, and explaining how they worked around such an incredibly tight budget. There are still some great notes about this episode in particular, such as how the producers knew the only way they could pull off a Sweet Sixteen with their budget is if the party were a colossal, dismal failure. "Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh" casts a bit of a wide net too, pushing the emphasis more on penning a series like this -- without the benefit of a writing staff, even -- than anything else. This ties back into "Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh" in particular since it was one of their first ideas for an episode dating back years and years but wound up being unexpectedly tough to write. I really enjoyed both of these commentaries, and I wish there could've been more of 'em.

"Party Down: A Look Behind the Scenes" (3 min.) and "What Is Party Down?" (2 min.) are both promotional featurettes that I guess popped up between movies on Starz or something. "A Look Behind the Scenes" touches on the whole 'crealism' -- comic realism! -- thing, and in between a few peeks at the cast and crew at work, it's just everyone quipping about how amazing it all is. "What Is Party Down?" also spends a bit of time trying to recap the premise of the show, shifting most of the facetime from the cast over to the producers. Both of these EPKs are kinda funny and self-effacing, sure, but they're basically ads for the show. Don't waltz in expecting any sterling insight or anything.

Last up are a couple of chunks of additional footage, kicking off with a 90 second gag reel that splices together a bunch of shots of the cast cracking up and stumbling through their lines. There are also eight minutes' worth of outtakes, and for the most part, they're different spins on some of the riffs: Roman pestering Jason Dohring's Young Republican about whether or not it's true what they say about your ladies, Ron overcompensating-slash-recoiling with terror at the thought of being gay-raped, and more about Rod Johnson's oversized wang. Some of Jennifer Coolidge's biggest laughs are hidden away here, including riffing, modeling in the Middle East and lobbing out some extra gags on the power of the mighty dolphin. The reel closes with a deleted scene from the high school reunion episode spelling out the terrible fate of Julie Melcher.

It's mentioned in one of the commentaries that the original, pre-natal pilot for Party Down -- shot at Rob Thomas' house with a few changes in the cast -- couldn't be included because of a bunch of hiccups with clearances. Videogum may or may not have that initial pitch if you're interested, though. (I couldn't get the video to come up on my PC, but there's clearly something there. Maybe you'll have better luck. No idea.) The first season of Party Down comes packaged in a glossy cardboard slipcover, and there's a plug for season two tucked inside. The case is one of those flimsy environmentally-friendly deals, and the two-disc set is the width of an ordinary DVD keepcase.

The Final Word
Sure, sure, Party Down may be a show about failure and delusion, but that doesn't mean it's not painfully and devastatingly funny at the same time. Taking at least some of its cues from the British version of The Office, Party Down piles together an almost surreally spectacular cast and is equal parts witty, cacklingly vulgar, sincere, sweet, and kinda heartbreaking too. It might get the nod as my favorite comedy on television right now (it's absolutely the best comedy that you're not watching), and as Party Down ramps up for its second season, it's definitely worth catching up on what you've missed so far. I get the sense that this is a show that holds up ridiculously well to repeat viewings too, and that makes Party Down that much more worth grabbing on DVD. Highly Recommended.
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