The Good Times are Gone, But ‘Party Down’ is Still Going

The legendary cult sitcom’s return is perfect for our age of diminished expectations

No one likes to admit it, but a lot of the scripted humor from the Obama years has aged pretty questionably. There was, shall we say, a little more optimism than seemed appropriate in retrospect. Parks and Recreation posited a world where cheery optimism could win over even stupid small town politics. Glee posited a world where cheery optimism could win over even ignorant high school politics. Shows like The Good Place and Ted Lasso continued this tradition, but I spotlighted Parks and Recreation and Glee in particular because these shows ironically yet appropriately destroyed the original run of the delightfully cynical Party Down by poaching two of its stars. Yet the Party Down of 14 years past has an eerily appropriate tone for our current era, with the ongoing third season reboot likewise emphasizing that even when you improbably win, you still probably lose.

Party Down deals with a catering party company in Los Angeles that is, for the most part, managed by Ron Donald, played by Ken Marino. In the original run, Ron Donald aspired to be a small business franchise owner, inevitably failing, and his luck in the reboot isn’t much better. The other characters had similar big Hollywood dreams with similarly big successes, albeit to wildly different timing and degree. Adam Scott’s Henry Pollard was memorably famous in a beer commercial, but is just a quiet alcoholic straight man in the original two seasons and somehow returns to that exact spot in the reboot when his actual day job of being a teacher isn’t enough on its own to pay his alimony. Kyle Bradway (Ryan Hansen) is the typical guy convinced he’s going to make it big in Hollywood, and even gets a leading role in a terrible looking superhero movie only to lose it because of scheming and…is also back to working at Party Down.

A big part of what makes Party Down so effectively dreary is that middle-aged people being forced back to work terrible jobs they thought they were done with is surprisingly on-point for the ongoing economic situation. The Party Down reboot even manages to work “success” through content creation into the story. Martin Starr’s Roman DeBeers seem to have finally found a niche for his hard science fiction analysis via YouTube, such that he can buy a previously-owned car. Except that Nazis seem to be the main people who like his videos. Also the car meets an unfortunate fate.

Let’s get back to the Nazis though. One of the very first episodes of the original Party Down lampooned College Republicans, and it’s a little scary just how easily the reboot Nazi episode feels like clean, logical continuity. The reactionaries are more buffoonish than evil. Yet they still come off as somehow less buffoonish than the characters in the catering company because an ongoing theme is that everyone is a bit of a blowhard. Even Henry Pollard, despite being framed as the straight man, is still too obviously above it all for his own comfort, exuding enough passive-aggressiveness that his divorce in the second episode of the reboot isn’t exactly a surprise considering how he was treating his wife in the first one.

In a way this is the quintessential American experience, especially for anyone who moves to Los  Angeles. The narcissism of unrealistic expectations, and the need to see the past and its pointless indignities as somehow mattering to the present moment. The first episode of the reboot strongly captures this bleakness by explicitly stating that reunions (and for that matter reboots) are pointless. Why do we want to see people we used to know, now that we’re successful, except to look down on them from our own superior position? There’s no actual progress. Jane Lynch’s Constance Carmell is now so wealthy as to render the other characters’ accomplishments effectively meaningless because her terrible nuptial decision at the end of the second season paid off big time.

But don’t mistake Party Down for having any kind of higher message, especially when the fourth episode of the reboot is mostly just drugs and silly wordplay. Zoe Chao’s Lucy, a new cast member, is a chef who makes food that tastes complicated. Does anyone want to eat complicated food? Well, no, probably not, and it’s also probably silly to expect anyone to want to appreciate art like that for art’s sake when most people just eat because, well, we need to eat to live. There’s also a pretty unsubtle irony about Nick Offerman’s wealthy Nazi guest star being the only character who can actually appreciate the food. The Nazis loved good art. Loving good art doesn’t make anyone a good or smart person.

Party Down is a show for those who have embraced, or at least accepted, that the world as we know it is irredeemably capricious and stupid, Los Angeles especially. It’s uncanny just how absurd the Party Down continuity’s version of the Marvel Cinematic Universe sounds. Then you realize that our MCU would probably sound just as ridiculous to them. Party Down itself feels like a product from another world entirely, where Adam Scott and Jane Lynch never got more high profile roles in Parks and Recreation and Glee, and TV trends of the teens ended up going in a radically different direction. But how much could we have expected really? Party Down is a show that runs on Starz, of all places.


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William Schwartz

William Schwartz is a reporter and film critic based in Seoul, South Korea. He writes primarily for HanCinema, the world's largest and most popular English language database for South Korean television dramas and films.

2 thoughts on “The Good Times are Gone, But ‘Party Down’ is Still Going

  • March 29, 2023 at 9:21 pm

    I never knew of this show until I heard William Schwartz and Neal Pollack discussing it on the podcast. 36 hours later I’m fully caught up and I love it. Just seeing Martin Starr essentially reprise his wonderful role in Adventureland was worth the price of admission. But Adam Scott and Lizzy Caplan are wonderful, too. And even Jane Lynch is almost bearable for a refreshing change. On the podcast, the guys compared Party Down’s relatively dark humor to the “gee whiz humor” of Parks and Rec. But there’s actually a lot of hopefulness and striving in Party Down, even amid the sarcasm and career disappointment. I mean … they keep tryin’, right? Great show, thanks for the reco and I’m glad it’s back.

  • March 29, 2023 at 9:29 pm

    I want to add that I can’t recall a show that so effectively and seamlessly uses its celebrity guest stars. Much of it makes sense cuz of the Hollywood-adjacent setting, so if Rick Fox plays himself it works fine a la Extras. But there’s plenty of stunt casting, too, and it’s smooth and functional.


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