Party Down

Fridays at 10 p.m. on Starz, plus streaming on Netflix (which is how Sean and I watch it). Six episodes into the second season.

So that summer cold I had ended up turning into a brutal, unforgiving case of acute tracheal bronchitis (I love having an official diagnosis) that ran me into the ground this past week. Going out was out of the question, but Sean and I got caught up on the increasingly obnoxious Glee, which we haven’t quite abandoned yet, though we’re getting close. We also rewatched The Prestige, and I reaffirmed my conviction that it’s sorely underrated—a dark but beautifully polished gem. Best of all, though, I got Sean into Party Down, which was easy because, one, Netflix subscribers can stream every single episode of the sitcom on demand (it’s convenient!) and, two, it has a great cast, energetic pacing, and fabulously sharp writing (it’s hilarious!). If I had to be laid low by a nasty little virus, holding a private Party Down marathon made it all somewhat tolerable.

Like The Shield on FX and Mad Men on AMC before it, Party Down turned up out of nowhere on a previously barren channel (seriously, Starz?!). It has a pedigree, though. The show’s creators include actor Paul Rudd and Rob Thomas (responsible for the cult favorite Veronica Mars), and their connections are apparent in the stellar cast and assembled guest stars. With alumni of Christopher Guest movies and Reno 911! bouncing off scene-stealers from Freaks and Geeks and Mean Girls and Superbad, how could the show not be funny?

The premise is simple. Henry (Adam Scott), a failed actor, returns to his old job at a second-tier catering company in L.A. For the most part, his colleagues are about as interested in food service as he is, which is to say, not at all. You have the struggling actors, the would-be comedian, the screenwriter who’s never sold a script, and in each episode, the team half-heartedly caters some event or another—a wedding, a birthday party, a high school reunion, or, hell, the afterparty of an awards event for the porn industry—inevitably with farcically botched results.

It’s far easier to describe how and why something is beautiful or compelling than it is to describe how and why it’s funny. Party Down, for example, is funny largely because it’s dancing around the never-to-be realized dreams of its ever-aspiring characters, but to put it that way makes the show sound bleak, which it’s not—at least not without easing some of that pain with sincere affection. Party Down isn’t mean-spirited, and that keeps the humor from pitching too far into darkness. It’s more neurotic than despairing, and as anyone who’s ever seen stand-up knows, neuroses are the root of virtually all humor.

The Party Down characters can be surprising, too, in very funny ways. When hopelessly awkward screenwriter Roman (Martin Starr) complains that pretty-boy actor Kyle (Ryan Hansen) gets the girls just because of his looks, we assume that Roman’s right, but it turns out that Kyle is also a warm, open-hearted guy capable of talking to women like they’re, you know, people—a concept that the judgmental, self-important Roman, looking for a magic trick to get anyone with breasts out of her clothes, can’t seem to grasp. In another episode, a warped after-school special about a sweet sixteen party boycotted by all the cool kids, cynical comedian Casey (Lizzy Caplan) tries to give the distraught birthday girl the appropriate moral about Who Our Real Friends Are while buoyant middle-aged actress Constance (Jane Lynch) blithely undermines the moral with lessons on how to shore up one’s coolness. (Bonus: Birthday girl’s dad is played by the always awesome J. K. Simmons, cheerfully spewing blisteringly foul-mouthed threats as a movie producer who could chew up Ari from Entourage into tiny little pieces.)

The heart of the show, though, is the on-again, off-again relationship between Henry and Casey. It’s not built to last (especially now that Adam Scott is joining the cast of Parks and Recreation), but their teasing banter is cute, witty, and biting. and their essential problem—battered by career setbacks, both are too gun-shy and self-conscious to risk real heartbreak—is poignant without being overwhelming.

It remains to be seen how Party Down will fare without Adam, who’s only the latest Party cast member to be poached by the networks after Glee started the trend by recruiting Lynch, but the successful transition after Lynch’s departure—with Jennifer Coolidge filling the void in the interim and Megan Mullally joining the cast in second season—makes me hopeful. Plus, the show’s premise lends itself to a rotating cast. Party Down isn’t a show about friends; it’s a show about colleagues, none of whom are committed to their jobs, all of whom are longing to be elsewhere. It’s inherently unstable, and that’s part of its charm: precariously balancing nagging dissatisfaction and unhappiness against small victories and dogged, willful optimism. Plus: madcap hijinks and dopey pink cater-waiter bowties! What’s not to love?