As Funny as Ever, Even With No Lizzy Caplan

The catering gang’s all here for the long-awaited revival of Party Down—except, that is, for Lizzy Caplan, whose absence is certainly a letdown given that the cult comedy hinged, in part, on the on-again, off-again romance between her wannabe-stand-up Casey and Adam Scott’s former actor Henry.

Nonetheless, in just about every other respect, the series’ resurrection on Starz (which premieres Feb. 24) delivers precisely what fans have been craving—namely, more of the same hilarious working-class Hollywood desperation and despondence punctuated by healthy servings of snarky absurdity.

Party Down was unceremoniously canceled 13 years ago, thereby denying it a proper ending. That turns out to have been something of an unexpected blessing, insofar as these new episodes are able to simply pick up wherever they like and, in sharp, quick strokes, fill in the blanks.

A married father and English teacher, Henry has seemingly gotten over Casey, who’s now a Saturday Night Live star and tabloid fixture. Ron (Ken Marino) owns Party Down catering but is still on the constant, anxious verge of failure. Roman (Martin Starr) continues to be an author and one of Ron’s employees, while the others have moved on to ostensibly better things.

Constance (Jane Lynch) is a widow/heiress/patron of the arts, courtesy of a giant inheritance; Lydia (Megan Mullally) is the successful manager of her actress daughter, Escapade (Liv Hewson); and Kyle (Ryan Hansen) has finally hit it big by nabbing a lead role in a superhero franchise film, and whose celebratory shindig is the setting for the season premiere.

Showrunners John Enbom, Rob Thomas, Dan Etheridge, and Paul Rudd don’t deviate from their tried-and-true formula, with each episode set at a different Party Down job and their characters a collection of sniping wiseasses who incessantly cut each other down to size. Party Down knows that, even by its own jokey logic, it makes no sense to completely reunite the staff, but it nevertheless finds clever ways to keep them in each other’s company.

Right off the bat, that means hopping from 2020 to 2022, during which time the pandemic has done a number on Ron’s business fortunes (and health), forcing him to live in his catering van and struggle, once more, to make ends meet. That skipped-over period also proves unkind to Henry, begetting divorce, mounting alimony payments, and thus a need to moonlight to make additional cash—hence his decision to re-up with the Party Down team.

Kyle is also back, following a viral video scandal involving his Season 2 performance of an inappropriate song (“My Struggle”) at Constance’s Jewish wedding. With Constance opting to become Ron’s partner, Party Down gets just about everyone in the same room, all while introducing a couple of new members to its ridiculous catering roster: Saxon (Tyrel Jackson Williams), a craftsman in “content” who aspires to hit it big with dance-centric web videos; and Lucy (Zoë Chao), a chef dedicated to creating thematically dense quasi-food items wanted by no one, least of all Ron.

Both Saxon and Lucy are uniquely drawn weirdos designed to clash with their elders, and their integration is as smooth and natural as the repartee of the original cast members, who slide back into their respective roles with ease.

Party Down swiftly reestablishes its signature groove, with Roman blathering on about his uncompleted hard-sci-fi novel and disdainfully looking down on everyone, Kyle acting like a blasé himbo and seizing opportunities to poke fun at Roman, and Ron freaking out over his employees’ lack of professionalism and slamming them for their many RDDs (i.e., “Ron Donald Don’ts”).

As for Henry, he remains a deadpan sad sack, beaten down by the habitual destruction of his dreams and the fact that he keeps winding up at this dead-end bartending position. He’s also, naturally, exhausted by the burden of his past celebrity; there’s almost no party he attends that doesn’t feature at least one guest blurting out the beer-commercial catchphrase (“Are we having fun yet?”) that made him a flash in the pan, and became the inescapable albatross around his neck.

As they carry food trays and clean up at a surprise birthday party for a superhero-movie actor (James Marsden) and at a convention for fledgling white nationalists that features an appearance by a proudly authentic Nazi (Nick Offerman), the Party Down crew makes a predictably amusing mess of things. Enbom, Thomas, Etheridge, and Rudd have lost none of their feel for these characters or their mordant dynamics, and their stars are in expert form, from Marino’s pathetic ambition and incompetence to Starr’s unjustified nerd condescension.

Party Down has always been a comedy about showbiz-infatuated Los Angeles and its legions of anguished strivers, most of whom wind up on the outside looking in—and are all the more bitter for it. With its protagonists now pushing middle age, that undercurrent is fresher (and more pitiful) than ever, and it contributes to some of the series’ funniest bits to date, highlighted by a luau event at which everyone but Ron agrees to trip on shrooms.

The one thing missing, of course, is Caplan, whose wry, winning rapport with Scott was the lifeblood of Party Down. With their prickly rollercoaster relationship a thing of the past, the show lacks the sweet emotion that complemented its acerbic and bawdy humor. Moreover, it loses a bit of the tension between the personal and the professional that was central to its finest installments.

Even so, Enbom, Thomas, Etheridge, and Rudd do their best to compensate for Caplan’s nonattendance, bringing aboard Jennifer Garner as a studio movie producer who, following a break-up with her beau, finds herself increasingly smitten with Henry. They may not be as interesting a pair as Henry and Casey, whom Lydia says were perfect because “they’re both skinny; they both have brown hair,” and whom Constance claims “could be brother and sister.” But as far as substitutions go, they’re pretty charming in their own right.

Ultimately, the most disappointing aspect of the new Party Down is that, unlike its prior ten-chapter seasons, it only runs six episodes. With any luck, though, this return engagement will solidify the series’ bona fides, and result in the future gigs it deserves.

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