Party Down (Starz, Fridays at 10 p.m. ET), a cult favorite wrapping up its second season this Friday, is a rather uneven, sometimes hilarious comedy of embarrassment as experienced by six employees of a Los Angeles catering company. The indignities heaped upon the cater-waiters begin with their uniforms, specifically the salmon-pink clip-on bow ties they wear like dog collars. They continue with the casual discourteousness of the jackasses they're so often waiting on—impatient men who order drinks as if sneering for sport. And then there are the degradations that go with having failed to make it in show business. Variously delusional and disillusioned, these actors and writers join Party Down itself in regarding Hollywood with fond contempt.
Our hero, Henry Pollard (Adam Scott, recently seen making eyes at Amy Poehler on Parks & Recreation), is back behind the open bar after eight years away, during which he had a little success as an actor, which is a dangerous thing. "Were you that guy?" an overtanned, deep-cleavaged party guest asked him in the pilot. "Yes, I was," he replied. The producers—who include a number of Veronica Mars veterans and actor Paul Rudd—have done well to cast Scott in the role. A lean-faced, sharp-eyed snark dealer, he's a cuter edition of Community's Joel McHale. Scott's cuteness—his hint of tenderness—helps to cut the character's cynicism, and it also helps to sell Henry's sparring romance with co-worker Casey Klein (Lizzy Caplan, deliciously bilious as Mean Girls' Janis Ian), a stand-up comic whose wit is her best weapon and only shield.
For a dumb hunk of dude, we have Kyle Bradway (Ryan Hansen), a Keanu Reeves type but bright blond and quite dim. He acts, fronts a band, does a little modeling. "So you're, like, in the overall handsome business," Henry said upon meeting him, nonchalantly seething with a thespian's distaste for a dilettante. (The caterers, so often feeling degraded by life in general and show business in particular, manage that vibe by demeaning one another.)
The one screenwriter among the bunch, Roman DeBeers (Martin Starr), amounts to the human embodiment of a scoff. Aggrieved that no one has recognized his genius for science fiction, Roman has ceased to care about grooming or disguising his snobbery or about where the line between dry drollery and empty sarcasm should be drawn. In a recent episode, hired to work for a hacky old writing partner, Roman spent much of his evening trying to serve his rival urine in a Champagne flute.
Megan Mullally, who tunes into her chipperness as the stage mom to a daughter named Escapade, inhabits the second female slot in the ensemble. Mullally's wacky Lydia Dunfree replaced Jane Lynch's zany Constance Carmell—a failed actress and the group's de facto den mother—when Lynch decamped for Glee. She will return for the season finale, where the team will cater her own wedding to an elderly Jewish man. Party Down isn't shy about leaning heavily on its influences, and writers were clearly feeling Curb Your Enthusiastic when drafting this episode. When Kyle's band, named Karma Rocket, plays the reception, its opening number, titled "My Struggle," leaves wedding guests taken aback. Kyle's intent was to share his stormy emotions about the Hollywood hustle: "Yeah, they brand you a star, throw you away, put you on the midnight train, going far." Constance interrupts the show to whisper in his ear. Kyle (baffled): "The Holo-what?" Constance: "Caust."
The leader of the crew, the career caterer, is Ron Donald (Ken Marino), whose go-to expression brings him to resemble a stunned Brendan Fraser and whose overall demeanor suggests that he learned management skills from Michael Scott of The Office. However, Ron, lacking Michael's undeserved self-confidence, spends a good deal of time cringing, pleading, and clinging to his last shreds of self-respect. He's trying to get the lime wedges sliced on time while his underlings are busy nursing grudges.
Party Down, which is funny, would seem even funnier if it were not so heavily indebted to the funniest TV shows of recent years. (For one thing, if I'd composed Arrested Development's theme music, I'd be very flattered by this show's slavish imitation of it.) It's also problematic that the show is so highly inconsistent. While some story lines are as fresh as crisply laundered tablecloths, others are awfully familiar in both concept and execution: Two out of three last episodes of this season feature the unplanned ingestion of recreational drugs, with Lydia really just wanting to powder her nose in one and Roman unwittingly munching a baked good in the other. Just say no to this plot device.
But the show rarely fails when exploring the drug that is show-biz ambition and the personalities most likely to get addicted to it. Party Down's appeal lies in its acute understanding of actors as insecure extroverts, writers as bashful narcissists, and unfulfilled artists of all types as quick-draw cynics. The subject matter is good for at least another two seasons' worth of material: For one thing, as far as I can tell, the show has yet to explore the fertile terrain of passed hors d'oeuvres, with the snatching and the near-lecherous eye-catching and the tedium of repeating, "Chicken satay?"
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