Catering is a shit job. The hours are inconsistent and absurd. The clients are particular and impossible to please. But it’s the work itself that kills you. There’s the creeping exhaustion of standing in one place for five hours, intermittently returning to the kitchen for more bite-sized salmon rolls or, God forbid, 12 glasses of the party’s themed cocktail (which no one ever wants). Your back hurts, your feet hurt, and your white shirt inevitably ends up stained. Mentally, it’s worse. Those drinks you’re passing out? Six white, six red, and all in “special” glassware provided by the host? They’re worth more than you are — meaning if you break one, you’re fired. Where you’re working and who you’re working for serve as a two-pronged reminder of the career and financial security you lack. Catering in Hollywood always comes with the vexing temptation of mingling with the people who can send your star rising or blow it to smithereens, like the glass you just dropped.
If you’re a young kid with big dreams, you may start to realize how far you are from reaching them. If you’re middle-aged and beaten down, your only thought may be, “I’m not supposed to be here.”
“Party Down,” during its initial two-season run from 2009-2010, captured the former perspective in all its preposterous indignity. The part-time wait staff went through the motions, passing apps and presetting stemware, always with an eye on their real jobs in the entertainment industry. When they weren’t adorned in pastel pink bow ties, they were actors, writers, or comedians — or, to put it coldly, they wanted to be these things. Catering was just a way to pass the time and pay the bills until their big break. Even Ron (Ken Marino), the team’s dedicated leader, saw his full-time position as a stepping stone to running his own restaurant franchise. (R.I.P. Soup R’ Crackers.)
To say a lot can change in 13 years is an understatement. “Party Down” Season 3 revisits its characters in their forties. Some have experienced success, others are still searching for it, but for the show to go on — without a dramatic structural shift — the old crew has to keep catering. Returning showrunner John Enbom recognizes as much and tries to avoid making the reunion too convenient (getting through most of the self-aware quips in the premiere), while still giving fans what they expect from a new season. Each episode revolves around a different gig. Most gigs involve hobnobbing with Hollywood types, and most of the actual Hollywood types — aka, the returning cast — are back in their bow ties, reporting for duty.
There are highlights in Season 3, mostly stemming from Ken Marino’s incredible physical comedy and the always-reliable “drug trip” episode, but “Party Down” isn’t having fun yet. How can it? Between nostalgic nods to the past and blunt exposition to reach the present, there’s a lingering separation between the actual jokes and the setting in which they’re told. “Party Down” was always a little sad, what with the constant disappointment plaguing these young dreamers. But that youth also offered hope. They were still maturing, still finding themselves, and the impermanence of their identities fit the disposable nature of their day jobs. Now that they’re older, fully-formed adults, it’s unclear what we’re supposed to make of these middle-aged men acting like nothing’s changed, and suffering twenty-something disappointments all over again.
Season 3 also has to contend with turning caricatures into characters. Take Roman, played by Martin Starr. Throughout the first two seasons, Roman is an elitist super-nerd; a sex-positive incel-type before the term took off. He’s jealous of Henry (Adam Scott) for “stealing” his crush, Casey (Lizzy Caplan); he’s jealous of Kyle (Ryan Hansen) for his good looks and ease with women; he’s jealous of successful writers to the point of resentment. There are few redeeming values to Roman — the kind of guy who calls “dibs” on his next sexual partner and proudly declares himself “post-racial,” before white-splaining “jungle fever” to Black clients — and that’s OK because he’s exactly the kind of co-worker you have to deal with when working in L.A.’s service industry. He’s there to provoke conflict, and, in the process, highlight Henry’s (and Casey’s) comparable integrity. When Roman becomes the butt of a joke, the laughs are easy because it’s clear he deserves whatever he gets.
But Season 3 softens Roman. Maybe he’s matured beyond the brash, know-it-all persona he brazenly sported 10 years ago, or maybe letting him become a hateful 40-something troll (or worse) felt too cruel for a “Party Down” reunion season. Either way, the show loses its edge along with him. Episodes about the alt-right, deadbeat dads, and blowhard actors go pretty easy on their satiric targets. There’s nothing in Season 3 on the level of Season 1’s “Sin Say Shun Awards Afterparty” (which slyly illustrates the porn industry’s exploitative practices — on Ron, of all people) or Season 2’s “Jackal Onassis Backstage Party” (a wicked spin on “The Prince and the Pauper,” where every time Jimmi Simpson’s de facto prince talks up his temporary life as a pauper, the gap between he and Henry gains painful clarity).
Courtesy of Colleen Hayes / Starz
Instead, Season 3 extends or recreates arcs from the past, hoping that familiarity will breed a rose-colored fondness. Kyle is still trying to breakthrough as an actor and, in the premiere, appears closer than ever thanks to notable roles in reboots like “OC: The Return.” (Season 3’s repeated references to made-up IP extensions make for its best running joke.) Kyle’s cocksure attitude combined with nothing upstairs remains reliably funny, especially in Hanson’s gifted hands, and repeatedly mocking his superficiality is about as ruthless as the season gets. Jane Lynch’s hippie character actor Constance and Megan Mullally’s manager/mom Lydia only pop up for a handful of episodes. The former mainly spouts encouraging nonsense, and the latter smiles brightly while talking up her budding star of a daughter, Escapade (who was originally played by Kaitlyn Dever, but is recast with “Yellowjackets’” Liv Hewson after Dever did, in fact, blow up).
As for our lead, Henry’s second go at an acting career didn’t take, but another brunette love interest nudges him toward a third try. (Lizzy Caplan does not appear in the first five episodes, but Casey’s absence is explained in Episode 1’s near-constant exposition dump.) Sadly, that’s about as far or as deep as Henry gets, which feels like a missed opportunity considering the range Scott has shown in the years since “Party Down” ended. Again, he finds himself stationed behind the bar. Again, a new lady serves as his last refuge and sole motivation. Again, he starts thinking about acting. Whether Henry’s life is too distressing to lead a comedy is a matter of opinion — plenty of people are still happy while working part-time, so long as catering isn’t the hopeless hellscape for them it is for this writer. But why is Henry stuck repeating the same motions he did in the first two seasons? Is there nothing new for him to do? Is there nothing new to be said about his dream, now that he’s older? (And don’t get me started on Jennifer Garner’s character, who’s so unbelievable the finale might reveal she’s a figment of Henry’s imagination.)
Thankfully, Ron Donald doesn’t need to change — and Marino doesn’t miss a beat. Just as he was once dedicated to managing the fastest-growing non-coffee, non-poultry franchise in all of Southern California, Ron is dead-set on growing his catering company into a top-level operation — and utterly incapable of making the decisions necessary to get there. Marino’s comic timing is exquisite, his animated body language always good for a laugh. (There’s a food-poisoning scene that rivals Jeff Daniels’ bathroom predicament from “Dumb and Dumber.”) The star’s all-in portrayal of a desperate man pretending to have his shit together is captured with such conviction, you can’t help but hope this endearing buffoon catches a break.
But hope is otherwise hard to come by in “Party Down” Season 3. It’s hard to shake the feeling that this crew just isn’t meant to be here; that audiences were better off believing Henry’s career turned out closer to the real-life actor playing him, while the rest of Party Down’s catering crew drifted off into lives befitting their archetypes. Kyle made it, because of course the hot dummy can crack into Hollywood. Roman didn’t, because he’s too jaded and angry to put himself out there. Ron is still Ron, which is why his character makes the most sense in Season 3.
Shit jobs aren’t meant to last forever, especially when you’re really just looking for a little fun.
“Party Down” Season 3 premieres Friday, February 24 at 3 a.m. ET via the Starz streaming and on-demand platforms and at 9 p.m. ET on the Starz linear network. New episodes will be released weekly.
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