Series Premiere: Party Down – “Willow Canyon Homeowner’s Annual Party”

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“Willow Canyon Homeowner’s Annual Party”

March 20th, 2009

Coming into this television year, Rob Thomas had the potential to be the next Greg Berlanti, coming off of one canceled show and suddenly ending up with about three of them balancing the airwaves. He was the first person to take a crack at bringing back 90210, he got a new version of his 90s series Cupid up and running at ABC, and there was something about some half hour comedy on Starz, I never really remembered the details.

And yet, by some twist of fate, 90210 was taken out of his hands early on, and Cupid’s release was delayed by ABC (although it will soon arrive, on March 31st). The result is that, while we could have technically had more Rob Thomas than we could handle on our hands, all we have is the quirky Party Down, a show that surprises a lot of people not just for being on a network that people don’t associate with original series but also because it features a lot of very familiar, and very hilarious, faces.

I guess it shouldn’t be a surprise that a show about washed up, or aspiring, showbiz types would be engaging, but what could have felt tedious finds that right balance between formulaic and spontaneous, pitting these archetypes against one another in a setting where their only job is to wear a crisp white shirt, a pink bow tie, and serve food, drink, and entertainment as per the client’s requests.

And while it might not have been “on the radar,” Party Down is worth searching out.

I’m not sure how the show will move after the Pilot, but it was a smart choice to pair a strong guest (Keith Mars himself, Enrico Colantoni) with the opening episode, primarily because we’re just starting to get to know our regulars. Here, they really remain their archetypes: Henry the one-hit actor defined by a beer commercial, Ron the manager who dreams of a restaurant chain, Casey the comedienne, Kyle the young upstart model/actor/pretty boy, Constance the “veteran actress” who’s a bit off her rocker, and Roman the well-read writer/DJ who thinks he’s above everyone else.

What’s so great about the show’s cast is that you could easily pick out who fits each role, but in each performer there exists something we know can take them beyond the cliches. Adam Scott is great at playing a straight man, as well as handling romantic material, so pitting him as our protagonist and as our male romantic lead (there’s sparks with Casey, clearly) makes perfect sense and has room to grow. Ken Levine was downright great on Veronica Mars, my only real experience with him as an Actor, but that skeezy side fits Ron great, just as Lizzy Caplan’s dry wit fits Casey. Ryan Hansen was pretty well born to play Kyle, although from Veronica Mars we know there’s hidden dramatic potential should it be required, while Jane Lynch so embodies wacky former actress who’s too crazy to get roles that I almost feel like she’s not even acting at points. And Martin Starr, who I remember so fondly from Freaks and Geeks, gives Roman just the right level of pretentiousness to make him likeable.

The pilot has the usual pitfalls: the pretty boy makes out with the client’s teenage daughter, the new recruit wears embarassing shirts and falls into the pool, the pretentious DJ plays a trick on the pretty boy, etc. But the show is so capable of switching between subtle comedy and broader gags that it all works: Henry’s sad descent into a depressed state as the party begins to realize where they know him from gives a whole new ironic meaning to his “Are we having fun yet?” catchphrase, to the point where it’s one big metaphor for his life defined by the MILF giving him a handjob in the front seat of his car, while Jane Lynch’s Constance is the wackiest character I’ve seen in a while, taking part in the party more than giving it.

Those parties are the other way that the series remains grounded, at least through one episode: Colantoni provides a glimpse into a dark side of suburbia, and the entire episode is none too subtle with its opinion on mailbox competitions and christmas decoration showdowns. The party is the very definition of lame, to the point where Colantoni skinny dips in the pool and expects everyone to, well, party down through his inspiration: instead, as would befit the show’s basic motto of dreams and hopes being crushed, the party just stares, appalled. Just as nobody wants to see his penis, nobody wants to see these people act, or write, or do their stand-up comedy, and as a result they’re stuck in the hellhole of cater-waiting.

But this depressing message never feels overpowering, never defines itself in such a way as to drive the series down. It wants to be realistic, sure, but by pairing it with weekly absurdities, by mixing up the locations, it can bring out different facets of these characters without feeling like you need to get bogged down by it all. I’ll never leave an episode with a sudden desire to run off to L.A. and find myself stuck in this existence, but at the same time there will be some part of me that wants the kind of hilarious, antic-filled life they get to lead. It’s fun to watch, despite not being fun to live, and it makes for an ideal short comedy series that’s easily made its way into my weekly viewing schedule.

Cultural Observations

  • It’s hard for an episode from both Rob Thomas and Paul Rudd not to be funny, but I liked that it wasn’t TOO funny: it didn’t feel like they were using their wackiest scenario, or their biggest plans, in the pilot, instead saving them for later down the line. That’s a good thing, I’d say.
  • Future guest stars seem to include Kristen Bell, Marilu Henner and Jason Dohring, so I also like that they’re mixing it up in terms of young alumn of Thomas’ shows as well as some older stars who fit into the diverse clientele that Party Down would bring in depending on the nature of the event.
  • Did Enrico Colantoni just throw caution to the wind at some point: he was naked here, and he was in a speedo throughout the pilot of Canadian series ZOS: Zone of Separation. Apparently cable has freed him of his restraints.
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2 Comments

Filed under Party Down

2 responses to “Series Premiere: Party Down – “Willow Canyon Homeowner’s Annual Party”

  1. I’ve seen this episode three times now, and it hasn’t gotten old yet, although the first time, Colantoni’s little dip made me hide my face in shame. I think this series has great potential, and I feel bonded with all of the characters already, especially that wacky Constance. She’s just so lovable.

  2. It’s hard for an episode from both Rob Thomas and Paul Rudd not to be funny

    and yet they achieved it.

    i’m afraid i’m not having fun yet, but i’ll give it another go as i’m fond of jane lynch, martin starr and lizzy caplan

    the other disappointing thing – the pretty boy just ain’t pretty

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