In pink ties and wrinkled white shirts, the Starz chain’s catering crew “Party Down” business event after dystopian event across Los Angeles: gloomy rich kid 16-year-olds and backstage parties for struggling stars, awkward and unsuccessful suburban orgies, senior singles seminars Age, pleasant corporate retreats.
But none of these workers take their jobs seriously — catering isn’t their real life, it doesn’t matter, it just keeps them real on their feet until their dreams of becoming screenwriters, actors, and comedians come true. That means there’s always time for vodka shots (lots of shots!), running lines and reading scripts, agonizing over auditions, and making and popping whatever cereal might be stashed in people’s bathrooms.
The series premiered in 2009, and was canceled after two seasons of poor reviews. But it has gradually found a cult following, over the past 13 years, and returns this week with a new, six-episode season. What really struck me, watching new episodes of my favorite group of food-service slackers, is how completely different “Party Down” feels than a lot of the chef-focused TV shows and movies that followed its initial run.
Although the third season introduces a tormented and misunderstood chef, played by Zoë Chao, who believes that food is an art and that it “should change the way you think and feel,” the show doesn’t really appeal to food or cooking at all.
Unlike, say, “Bear” or “The Menu” in which a chef’s sheer intensity and ambition drives her to work, “Party Down” features food workers who don’t really care about the job, and the food itself is almost beside the point.
Back in 2009, that seemed like a good read in microcosm of the Los Angeles food serving scene, but now it’s sharper, more discerning, and maybe even more honest about food service as a whole. For a generation of workers who survived the pandemic and sought a more balanced and healthy life, the inequalities, demands and boredom of industry have never been more apparent.
“Party Down” is a workplace sitcom, but it’s also a rare show that focuses on catering workers, rather than wealthy chefs, owners, or clients. At the center of the series are a crew of caterers and the chaos of their mundane lives intertwined – meltdowns, financial stresses and indignities.
Henry, played by Adam Scott, is an English teacher in the middle of a divorce who has given up on acting (or is he?). Roman (Martin Starr) is devoted to and still working on his adaptation of “hard science fiction,” which he begins writing on a roll of toilet paper while extremely high. Ken Marino plays their impossibly optimistic and awkward manager, Ron Donald, who is always on the verge of breaking up.
In earlier seasons, clients often romanticized the lifestyles of young catering workers, and the freedom (read: insecurity) of working from gig to gig. “I could have been you,” a wealthy suburban father sighs to Henry, feeling trapped in his comfortable life. In another episode, a glam rock star named Jackal Onassis confesses to Henry that he lives a “fake life”.
“Do you know what I wish I could buy?” He says. “This! Being you guys. A real gentleman with a normal job.”
Henry, who implies that his chauffeur will take the star to a fancy hotel room to party with several women after the event, finds it hard to believe. But Jackal Onassis, outside of his theatrical make-up, completely disguised in a white shirt and pink tie, loves to play the role of waiter in the evenings at his own party. He enjoys being cursed at by a guest and, later, even enjoys being fired.
It’s painful for Henry to see work he already resents treated like a fun little game, but the show is especially great at drawing out the short, intense tensions and alliances that can form over the course of one night between workers and guests. Caterers have a bad habit of getting involved, giving a 16-year-old a pep talk when her friends aren’t coming to her party, or trying to walk into a very drunk and confused guest’s house.
When the new season begins, years have passed and the characters have aged, but they continue to reassure themselves, and each other, that their misery is temporary: their real job and real life are just around the corner.
or they? Party Down doesn’t seem to believe in the vague Hollywood dream of “making it happen.” The show is more concerned with the sweetness, meaning, and unexpected friendship that can come from all the time that isn’t supposed to count, moment to moment, day to day, year to year, before their imagined big break.
Most of the show’s scenes take place in the liminal spaces of the clients’ homes and venues – back kitchens, garages, tents, driveways, and more. The comedy unfolds as the characters cut lemons and empty plates and silverware, build fires to raze the dishes, put the final decorations on the snacks, or pack up the truck and smash the bar.
The story is here, in preparation time and side work. It’s usually skipped on screen at all hours for being so dull, so repetitive, so unremarkable that viewers can get right down to the glitz and speed of service — the chefs in fresh eggs grumble at passing, servers spread out like clockwork.
The beauty of “Party Down” is that it’s always refused to glorify the food industry, drawing us instead to the endless, dull, in-between time that adds up to, well, something. Deep comedy and tragedy of the utterly mundane. Or at least a hundred thousand lemons, cut into wedges.
Henry’s love interest in the first two seasons is Casey, another undertaker played by Lizzy Caplan, who once asked him a question that still drives the show: “How do you know the difference between a stupid job that’s really a stupid job, and a stupid job that gets you somewhere?”
The answer in every new and old episode: No.
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