Season Premiere: Party Down – “Jackal Onassis Backstage Party”

“Jackal Onassis Backstage Party”

April 23rd, 2010

“It’s no picnic being the boss, huh?”

When we write about Party Down, we tend to focus on the premise over the characters. Part of this has to do with the fact that we’re all preparing for the fact that the show might lose many of its characters if it gets a third season, so there’s a vested interest in emphasizing its revolving locations and the general focus on struggling actors/writers/show business folk working to support their dreams over Henry or Casey. While we’re attached to the characters, who were certainly one of the most important parts of the hugely enjoyable first season, it’s the diverse engagements that really set the show apart, and which have formed the basis for its most enjoyable episodes.

“Jackal Onassis Backstage Party” reminds us that these characters are very funny, but it also reminds us that the show isn’t used to handling quite this much character. While the dynamics of the first season cast took some time to develop, they eventually formed into something truly fantastic; however, it was rare that the show seemed like it was really spending a lot of time introducing, or renintroducing, or “changing” character dynamics. The second season premiere has to go through a lot of exposition, which keeps the humour from rising to the level achieved last season, but the central premise remains strong, and the changing dynamics work in the show’s favour at the end of the day.

The show’s premise hasn’t actually changed, you’ll notice: the show isn’t going to suddenly switch gears to do an episode entirely about the catering company, where they can handle the sort of exposition that they need to do here. Picking up nine months after the end of last season means that Casey can be back from her cruise, and Ron’s Soup ‘R Crackers can have already failed, and Henry can be comfortable (or at least entrenched) in his new leadership role, but they need to reveal those facts within the context of a catering event. Combine with the need to introduce Megan Mullally’s Lydia, and you have a lot of boxes that the episode needs to tick, something it’s not really built to do.

John Enbom’s script does an admirable job of trying to maintain the show’s usual structure despite this burden of sorts, and the results are largely quite clever: the central premise of Jackal Onassis (played wonderfully by Jimmi Simpson) wanting to trade his rock star life for a menial service position as “Dennis” makes for a nice play on questions of fame and identity that have always been important to the show, and the usual escalation as things turn from a little out of hand to completely out of hand worked nicely in terms of reintegrating Ron into the environment. Roman switching places with Onassis helped ground the episode, as he and Kyle largely played out their normal storylines (with Kyle still getting more girls even when he was masquerading as a satanic rock star) but with a nice twist to them. While the episode had different goals than most episodes of the show, it was not necessarily a “different” episode on the surface, which is ultimately a good thing.

The show has a little bit more trouble with the awkwardness surrounding Casey’s return, if only because it means a lot of new dynamics that the show doesn’t really get a chance to play out. She’s awkward around Henry, has no relationship with Dennis since he’s not actually an employee, and spends more of her time with Lydia. We don’t get to see Casey fall into the usual patterns outside of her time with Henry, and so we’re reminded that the group has effectively been changed without really being given any sense of what that group (as a whole) is going to look like. There’s a lot of potential in this group, but it’s all sort of presumed at this stage rather than being demonstrated in any real way, the changes in character largely played independent of group dynamics.

The one exception is Henry’s new leadership position, which gives Adam Scott another shade to play – the character used to despise his job, but now it’s his entire life since he’s given up acting in order to “Team Lead” full time. He’s settling down with Uda, he’s trying to get his priorities in order, and it makes for a no-nonsense character who’s trying to uphold professionalism. Of course, at the same time he’s willing to go along with Onassis’ plan, and he’s willing to let Ron and Mandy into the party, and he’s not a fundamentally changed character. However, it’s interesting to see how his outlook on life has changed, and from his conversations with the Jackal we see that there is some part of him who still wonders about living the dream. It was a good Henry episode in that respect, and a thorough introduction to his new position to a degree that Casey’s return and Ron’s return weren’t really offered (by design, of course).

The big question going into the premiere was how the show was going to handle the introduction of Lydia, who is “replacing” Constance after Jane Lynch chose to switch over to Glee. That’s an understandable decision, but I miss Constance: she was a character that never felt like she had an agenda, and whose personal life was uncomplicated beyond her inflated sense of self-importance regarding her faded acting career. Lydia is not an uninteresting character, having moved to L.A. to help her daughter Escapade launch her career, but she’s a bit too much of a character: every conversation ends up revolving around her, and it’s a character trait which does little to dial back some of my residual ill-will regarding Megan Mullally as a result of her character on Will & Grace. I liked Mullally well enough on Parks and Recreation that I think I can look past that, and she’s ultimately quite funny here, but the introduction of her character feels forced in a way which then by extension makes the character seem forced, which makes the introduction forced, and…you get the idea.

But overall, the show is fantastic at creating pleasures both big and small: we enjoy seeing Ron get tasered in terms of broad comedy while we have fun with Dennis’ sheer enjoyment over being called an asshole or getting labeled a terrible bartender. And while the “gang” doesn’t quite pull together in the episode, the return of Casey and Ron to the fold was a necessary move which still got plenty of laughs, and there is nothing here to indicate that the show is in any sort of trouble heading into the rest of the season. While it may not be Party Down at its finest, “Jackal Onassis Backstage Party” remains Party Down in its element, and effectively gets the major exposition out of the way so that things can evolve in the future.

Cultural Observations

  • Some have noted that Jennifer Coolidge’s character (who showed up last year when Lynch was busy filming Glee) fit in much better than Mullally’s – in that case, unless I’m mistaken, it was a very late decision and the script was more or less written for Jane Lynch. I think that kept her from seeming quite so out of place, as there wasn’t a focus on trying to introduce or blend her in with the group. I don’t think that Mullally isn’t meshing with the group so much as the character isn’t designed to just fit into the same role, so it’s going to take some getting used to.
  • On most shows, having an off-screen girlfriend when that girlfriend is played by Kristen Bell would seem forced due to her relative fame, but here it makes sense that we wouldn’t see her very often since she would have no reason to be at Henry’s catering events. Still, though: I wish we were getting more than a single Kristen Bell episode this season.
  • Loved the little moment where Casey ends up accidentally doing Lydia’s agreed-upon sign – it wasn’t rocket science, but it was a nice bit of in-episode continuity which worked in its favour.
  • Of course The Mentalist would be Uda’s favourite show – well played, Enbom.
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1 Comment

Filed under Party Down

One response to “Season Premiere: Party Down – “Jackal Onassis Backstage Party”

  1. Adam B.

    Absolutely love this show. It’s a shame that I’m the first comment.. don’t think enough people know about it. Anyhow, this episode was pretty funny overall. The comedy is different from other comedies I watch, so I like that a lot. Mullally doesn’t fit perfectly, but should she really mesh with them after one episode? I think it’s unfair for other fans to say that. Jennifer Coolidge came off as really annoying to me.. kind of glad she isn’t on it anymore. On the other hand, Mullally is more likable and actually had some funny moments (the signal, laying her head against the security guard’s chest, etc). I think we can all agree that it’s great to finally have it back. The end of last season had me dying to see some more. Spread the word!

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