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The Party Down Revival Beats the Comedy Reboot Curse

Despite a 13-year hiatus and losing Lizzy Caplan, the catering sitcom remains hilarious and surprisingly wise.
  • Ryan Hansen, Zoe Chao, Martin Starr, Adam Scott, Tyrel Jackson Williams in Party Down (Starz)
    Ryan Hansen, Zoe Chao, Martin Starr, Adam Scott, Tyrel Jackson Williams in Party Down (Starz)

    As the last several years on television have shown, it's almost impossible to successfully reboot a comedy. Dramas can sometimes pull off a significant reinvention (like a Battlestar Galactica), and CBS has gotten long runs out of revived procedurals like Hawaii Five-0, but the graveyard of TV’s last decade is littered with classic TV sitcoms that couldn't rekindle the spark of their original incarnations, from Will & Grace to Murphy Brown to Arrested Development. Maybe comedies are too indebted to their original eras to weather a lengthy hiatus.

    Whatever the reason, the odds seemed particularly stacked against a revival of Party Down, a show that was beloved by a very small audience when it aired a scant 20 episodes on Starz from 2009 to 2010, then rose to cult status in subsequent years. Expectations were going to be high, and when it was announced that the show's original female lead, Lizzy Caplan, wouldn’t return for its six-episode third season, the chances seemed even slimmer that those expectations would be met.

    It's a sweet breath of relief, then, to find Party Down is as funny and sharply written as ever. Still focused on the Party Down catering company, run by the hapless but eternally success-oriented Ron Donald (Ken Marino), the show remains an endearing and admirably goofy look at the employees, who are all hanging on the lowest rungs of the entertainment industry ladder.

    That premise, in fact, is one reason the revival works so well. It makes sense that more than a decade since we last saw them, not much has changed for these characters. Ron is still trying his damndest to keep Party Down afloat despite a challenging economy and the specter of COVID (a topic the show handles as swiftly and humorously as it can). Henry (Adam Scott) has given up on an acting career and is now teaching high-schoolers, though he finds himself back in Party Down's orbit when he needs to moonlight.

    Kyle (Ryan Hansen) has momentarily reached the promised land with a lead role in an action blockbuster, and watching how he finds his way back to wearing that pink bow tie is a surprise worth preserving. Roman (Martin Starr) never left the company, and he’s been reduced to vlogging about the “hard sci-fi” opus he’s certain he’s got in him somewhere. (He'd blog, but he's got carpal tunnel). Lydia (Megan Mullally) is still managing her daughter Escapade's acting career, while Constance (Jane Lynch) is now a typically undefinable "actress/playwright, widow, heiress, and patron of the arts."

    Failure is inherent to this formula. These are people whose careers have always been frustratingly, often humiliatingly out of reach. The fact that 10 years later they're still just as far from Hollywood success only sharpens the humor. There’s even more desperation and inanity as these idiosyncratic characters bounce off of each other and the various bigwigs and oddballs they end up catering for.

    Which isn't to say things haven't evolved. Henry's new vantage point feels almost mature. He's still getting the random "Are we having fun yet?" references to the beer commercial that will forever follow him around, but he's more resigned to them now. The teaching wrinkle is interesting; it's not his dream, but he seems pretty suited to it. And in the first episode, he meets Evie, a producer played by Jennifer Garner. The show seems eager to fast-forward to the part where they're a couple, which is ultimately fine since Scott and Garner play off of each other incredibly well, particularly as their characters get more familiar with each other.

    Garner is something of a revelation here, which is a strange thing to say about an actress who's been an A-Lister for the last 20 years, but her relaxed comedic vibe immediately stands out. This is the best she's been on screen in a very long time, and it's one of the best reasons for the curious to check out the series.

    Hollywood’s own evolution since the late aughts has also made the ground more fertile for Party Down's dismayed look at the entertainment industry. Series creators Rob Thomas, John Enbom, Dan Etheridge, and Paul Rudd certainly understand the world of franchise extensions and sprawling narrative universes, given Thomas’ work on various Veronica Mars projects and Rudd’s time in the Marvel Cinematic Universe. They know how to filter their first-hand experiences through this particular group of strivers. The acting career Henry once dreamed of having barely exists anymore. Roman's vlog is primarily watched by gamer-gaters and incels. Garner's character used to produce independent movies, and that career path dried up so entirely that it's barely worth lamenting anymore.

    Meanwhile, two new characters shed light on more contemporary creative pursuits. Tyrel Jackson Williams (Brockmire) plays Sackson, a twentysomething TikTokker, and while viewers might brace for the show to heap snide generational ridicule on him, it has other interests. Sure, there's a sense of lamentation over the artistically bankrupt attention economy that TikTok thrives in, but the show recognizes he's just trying to find his way in, the same as everyone else.

    Zoë Chao (The Afterparty) is also onboard as Lucy, the new chef at Party Down, whose desire to make food as art sets her up for constant disappointment. Like Garner and Williams, she fits perfectly into the ensemble, and all three newcomers are given lots to do. This helps shore up Caplan's absence and mitigate the fact that Lynch and Mullally aren't in every episode.

    There's something genuinely heartening about the fact that this series, of all the attempted reboots and revivals, is the one to come back so strong. Party Down was cut short while it was still fresh, and it’s gratifying to see it show its best self. The entertainment industry may be bleaker than ever, but riding that wave with this group of funny and lovable failures makes it easier to bear.

    Party Down Season 3 premieres on Starz on February 24. Join the discussion about the show in our forums.

    Joe Reid is the senior writer at Primetimer and co-host of the This Had Oscar Buzz podcast. His work has appeared in Decider, NPR, HuffPost, The Atlantic, Slate, Polygon, Vanity Fair, Vulture, The A.V. Club and more.

    TOPICS: Party Down, Adam Scott, Dan Etheridge, Jane Lynch, John Enbom, Ken Marino, Martin Starr, Megan Mullally, Paul Rudd, Rob Thomas (Writer), Ryan Hansen, Tyrel Jackson Williams , Zoe Chao