Welcome to Previously On, a column that gives you the rundown on the latest TV. In this edition, Valerie Ettenhofer reviews the long-awaited season 3 of Party Down.
The TV landscape is riddled with sequels, reboots, and revivals. For every good one, there are handfuls of bad ones, obvious cash grabs, and IP-stretching experiments designed to see just how long we’ll pay attention to something we all cared about ten years and several endings ago. By now, it’s hard to get excited about revivals of even our most-loved shows because viewers can’t anticipate when they’ll get axed again (like Veronica Mars), muddy their own mythology (like The X-Files), or fade away before they even get made (like Buffy the Vampire Slayer).
So if you approach the new season of the cult favorite comedy Party Down – which returns to Starz this month after thirteen years off the air – with an air of cool detachment, I truly don’t blame you. It’s probably what the Party Down crew themselves would do, after all. But luckily, you don’t need to: this show absolutely rocks.
During its initial two-season run, Party Down evolved from a cynical comedy about a group of sardonic and unhinged would-be actors into an astutely observed, slyly charming ensemble series – that was still about sardonic and unhinged would-be actors. Set in the Hollywood catering business, the show was able to employ a rotating cast of greedy, horny, weird, and hilarious guest stars, and it often juggled multiple outrageous plotlines with the nimbleness of a Larry David comedy. Its new season does all that again and then some, staying true to each of its characters and sharpening its wit against an industry and political landscape that have changed drastically since the show last aired.
The basic premise of Party Down remains mostly unchanged: each episode bears the name of an event the titular catering company is set to work, and the half-hour takes place entirely during the course of the party. Adam Scott returns as Henry, who we last saw at a big audition. The new season makes a bold leap early on that turns the tables on its characters, but suffice it to say the wheel of fortune comes for most of the chronic losers on the Party Down team. The show has always been realistic (or perhaps pessimistic) about the fickle nature of the film industry. Still, the new season cleverly captures the whiplash-inducing rise and fall of celebrities in the current social media era.
The majority of the original ensemble returns for season three, with the exception, in the five episodes available for screening, of Lizzy Caplan’s Casey. While her chemistry with Henry added a pang of vulnerability and yearning to the show’s original run, the new episodes still keep the rom-com-within-a-farce feeling alive by introducing a memorable new love interest for the bartender. The show’s new recurring cast includes Tyrel Jackson Williams as a Zoomer influencer and Party Down teammate, Zoë Chao as an avant-garde new chef, and Jennifer Garner as a producer who hires Party Down for her boyfriend’s (James Marsden) surprise birthday party. All three are excellent, as are a slew of surprising, zany, well-cast guest stars.
Special attention should be paid to the Party Down cast, as over a decade of retrospect has made it more clear than ever that the show has one of the best comedic ensembles ever put together on TV. Ken Marino’s Ron delivers another all-in performance as a team leader who only gets funnier as his life gets more out of control. At the same time, Jane Lynch’s Constance counters him with a serene, obliviously batty energy. Ryan Hansen is in full himbo mode as Kyle, whose run-ins with fame are cringe-inducing but entertaining, while his frenemy, Martin Starr’s Roman, still is a more mellow misanthrope than before. Meanwhile, Megan Mullally’s Lydia still gets all the best lines and delivers them in ways that make me wonder if Mullally sold her soul in exchange for secret comedic knowledge no one else on earth seems to be able to tap into. And Scott’s Henry is geeky-cool as always, funny as both the reaction image-inspiring straight man and the occasional source of chaos himself.
Party Down let its crew grow up during its time away, but not so much that they’re no longer funny. The show brims with so much energy and humor that it’s easy to look past its emotional core, but that might be stronger than ever this time around, too. As several of the characters find themselves back in the increasingly absurd service industry after time away, they start to question what’s worth striving for and what’s worth letting go of. The show doesn’t pretend to have all the answers, but it certainly has enough juice left in the tank to last for as long as it takes to explore the question. It would be an ironic but fitting twist of fate if Party Down returned for a one-and-done season, but now that it’s here, I never want the party to end.
Part Down season 3 debuts February 24th on Starz. Watch the season trailer here.
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