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“Mr. Guttenberg, I don’t want do this anymore.” Man do I know that feeling.
The exact words belong to aspiring screenwriter Roman (played by Freaks and Geeks and Silicon Valley actor Martin Starr) in an episode from the second and final season of Party Down, a sitcom from the late aughts that lived on the outer reaches of the cable box. Roman is a reluctant member of the titular event catering service, and at the moment of his plea, he is being pushed by none other than Steve Guttenberg to allow the out-of-work actors that make up his coworkers to read the latest draft of his “hard sci-fi” opus. In other words, the star of the Police Academy and Three Men and a Baby franchises is forcing him to lay bare his artistic heart in front of the people who know him best for his ability to serve canapés and unstack palettes of glasses. Roman likens the experience to “being hunted for sport.”
It is a terror any barista who has ever been recognized for playing in a band or copy editor with creative writing MFA knows all too well. There are few things more painful than having your life’s passion be a subject for potential derision at the place you punch the clock, a dark truism from which Party Down extracts its painfully thorny and delightfully inspired comedy. It is a show that dares to answer that question that has lingered in the mind of anyone who has ever ordered a drink in the vicinity of West Hollywood: What’s the difference between an actor working as a bartender and a bartender? The answer exists somewhere in that vast chasm between laughter and tears.
Structurally, Party Down is simultaneously a throwback and true innovation. It borrows the Taxi construct of taking one normal guy who has seemingly accepted his fate in a dead-end job—here played by eternally droll everyguy Adam Scott—and then surrounding him with a half dozen or so aspirational weirdoes like Roman. But then it does something new by basing every episode entirely around an event the crew is working—“California College Conservative Union Caucus,” “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday”—so we never get to see our heroes without their humiliating pink bow ties. The structure not only allows a cavalcade of great guest stars like J.K. Simmons, Josh Gad, Kristen Bell, and Ken Jeong, but also allows for regular cast members like Jane Lynch to easily slip out (the show started right as Glee was taking off) and be replaced by equally loopy comediennes Jennifer Coolidge and Megan Mullally.
Like many of its modern comedy brethren, Party Down can test our ability to endure absurdly awkward moments, many of them (a la Guttenberg) born out by these wannabes-holding-trays interacting with the already-gots they’re serving. But none of the other cringe-fests crowding your streaming services can boast a cast as accomplished as Party Down’s, nor its emotional heft. Indeed, the central romance between Scott’s Henry and Cassie, adroitly played by Masters of Sex standout Lizzy Caplan, feels delicate, powerful, and painfully familiar. Also, the construct of having the world these characters are so desperate to be part of dangled in front of them like a steak in front of a lion gives every episode an electric jolt of need and desperation.
But really this is just the perfect comedy to call up when you need commiseration about the crappy job you currently have, once had, or will have in the future. We may not want to do this anymore, Mr. Guttenberg, but it is not like we really have a choice, so what the hell, we might as well have a laugh.