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"Jackal Onassis Backstage Party," "Precious Lights Preschool Auction," "Nick DiCintio's Orgy Night," "James Ellison Funeral," "Steve Guttenberg's Birthday," "Not On Your Wife Opening Night," "Party Down Company Picnic," "Joel Munt's Big Deal Party," "Cole Landry's Draft Day Party," "Constance Carmell Wedding"
by Jefferson Robbins Hitting its sophomore stride just in time to meet the axe, the Starz sitcom "Party Down" tries its damnedest to make an arc out of its concept: catering staff with frustrated dreams of fame passes out shrimp rolls to the Hollywood elite. Off-putting and cruel in its first season, the ensemble comedy hits its rhythm this time around, even managing to develop a theme beyond "workaday despair."
Henry (Adam Scott) takes on the role of team leader for Party Down Catering, semi-contentedly serving drinks and hors d'oeuvres to the L.A. jet set and putting his failed acting career well behind him. He's thrown off by the return of love interest Casey (Lizzy Caplan), a struggling comic, and of Ron Donald (Ken Marino), the hapless schmoe he replaced in management. Still in place are pedantic sci-fi scriptwriter Roman (Martin Starr, underrated and deadpan excellent in Knocked Up) and his nemesis, handsome and hyperconfident F-list actor Kyle (Ryan Hansen). Megan Mullally, taking the middle-aged-female slot abandoned by Jane Lynch near the end of Season One, steps in gracefully as Lydia, a Midwestern stage mom and perpetual pleaser.
That season felt like a look back in revulsion for its executive producers (among them Paul Rudd), no doubt grateful to be shed of the valet/busboy/hash-slinger jobs that await most hopeful creative types arriving in Hollywood. This time out, the Party Downers are continually confronted by alternate choices and life paths they might yet take--more doors left ajar, fewer brick walls. They're not asked to dump everything and start over, only to think in a different way about how they might win through. Lydia learns the value of networking to get actress daughter Escapade (Kaitlyn Dever) her first paying gig. Casey retreats in horror from a former fellow comedienne turned Beverly Hills supermom (Andrea Savage). Steve Guttenberg teaches bitter hack Roman a lesson about revising a screenplay ("Why haven't I ever tried it before?"). Blithe and shallow Kyle, ever unfazed by Roman's mockery of his stalled career, crumbles when he hears the same ridicule from a beautiful naked woman (Rebecca Marshall). "Keep chasing the dream" is the recurring phrase of this season, but it's not strictly a cliché: the crew is waking up to the fact that dreams are shaped by the dreamers.
The cast is first-rate, and really clicks into an ensemble groove as the writers stop looking down on their characters' positions in life and start thinking about the service sector as an interface with the wider world. Now when Ron gets an eyeful of Mace or takes a shot to the balls, it's not simply because he's the clueless authority figure--it's because he did something clumsy or stupid, and genuinely deserves it. The least convincing throughline may be Henry's push-me-pull-you flirtation with the laceratingly funny Casey and his quandary over committing to her (duh) or staying true to his intimidating paramour/rival caterer Uda (Kristen Bell).
Series co-creator Rob Thomas pulls in a boatload of alumni from his other prematurely-cancelled show with Bell, "Veronica Mars", so there's plenty of cameo spotting to be had. The best instance of this, series capper "Constance Carmell Wedding," opens on a smiling Jane Lynch preparing for her nuptials with Alex Rocco--officiated by eternal That-Guy Erick Avari--and builds to a walk-on by Patrick Duffy. (The Man From Atlantis is so due for a Betty White-ian career renaissance, I can just taste it. I'm not sure I saw any scripted YouTube bits last year funnier than "Patrick Duffy and the Crab.") "Party Down" always tried to be an ongoing story rather than a bunch of episodic chunks--maybe that was its problem--so fans may despair over the one story thread left hanging. But the season hangs together so well thematically, the final shot is cause for a fond smile rather than tears.
Crisp and as well-defined on DVD as its predecessor was, "Party Down"'s second season admirably hurdles the upconversion to 1080p thanks to its HiDef production values. I'm still put off by the not-really-a-documentary handheld style that prevails in scripted TV generally these days--whose eyes am I watching this through?--but here it helps negotiate the close-quartered kitchens and pantries where caterers necessarily spend much of their time. The Dolby 5.1 sound array is well thought-out, making room noise a priority but never at the expense of key dialogue, so viewers really feel like guests at "Nick DiCintio's Orgy Night."
Everybody on the production seems to have bailed on the idea of DVD extras. Why should Thomas and co-creator John Enbom (also the pre-eminent scriptor this season) sit down to record a damn commentary when Starz short-sightedly shot their baby in the head midway through this cycle? See instead a frustratingly short "Gag Reel" (4 mins.) and the "'Party Down' Promo" (1 min.). Or don't; you'll miss nothing. Cancellation forces the series to speak for itself. And with these episodes, it does. Originally published: December 8, 2010.