Party Down – “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday”

“Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday”

May 21st, 2010

I told myself I was going to be content with just a Twitter conversation about this week’s superlative episode of Party Down featuring Steve Guttenberg as himself, but then I actually started to have that Twitter conversation and realized that I was going to need to write something down.

Specifically, I want to discuss what it is that makes “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” so fantastic, because it isn’t just Steve Guttenberg. The episode is entirely atypical, eschewing the traditional catering setup for a more casual atmosphere, and the trade of the show’s usual employment drama for more complex interpersonal drama is really well handled. It raises an interesting question for a series which relies so heavily on formula: is it possible for the show to veer away from its structure more often, or would episodes like this one become overbearing if they become too common?

It’s complicated enough that I want to spend a few paragraphs talking about it, plus I’ve got some thoughts on whether the show could live on without half its cast.

It is pretty easy to see why this episode worked so well: like “Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh,” the caterers become part of the party, and the “guest star” becomes someone who takes an interest in the lives of the actors and writers who are in charge of the food. It means that there doesn’t have to be a distinction between work Henry and real Henry, and that there are no moments of awkwardness where food service goes poorly or where Henry allows a man’s mistress to remain at a wedding. It’s not that these elements aren’t funny, but it’s rather that they feel like a distraction. Usually the challenge of working as both an actor and a caterer, for example, is that you can’t do both at the same time: here, they were actors first and caterers second, and it meant that we got to see how Kyle hits on women outside of his job, Roman’s writing process, Lydia’s attempts to win over her neighbours, etc.

It’s a completely different show: sure, it still has an irreverent style of humour, and it’s still really funny, but its poignancy is allowed to become the source rather than a spin-off benefit of that humour. So often the show created madcap scenarios that sort of happened to speak to where characters sat at a particular moment, but here we saw these characters in a vulnerable state where there is a direct correlation between actions and emotions. While on the surface it seems like a care-free environment, in many ways it lacks the security of being able to distract one’s self with your work, and the loss of professionalism leads Casey to make a move on Henry, something that wouldn’t have probably happened (at least not so soon) had they been catering a party.

On the one hand, I don’t think the show should do these kind of episodes too often: the show still revels in awkward catering setups (last week’s funeral-set episode had some great moments), and these characters are too weird and screwed up not to be let loose into the wild on occasion. However, I do think it’s something that the show gains a great deal of value from, as the characters become more interesting and you have the opportunity to make a progress report regarding how much the characters have changed. However, while a third season seems more unlikely the longer we hear no word from Starz and considering the show’s disastrous ratings, the idea of a revolving cast would make those kinds of episodes both more difficult and more valuable. These episodes are a great way to build characters, but they might not be as enjoyable if we didn’t know these characters so well: in fact, this was perhaps the most I’ve felt Jane Lynch’s absence this season, as we just haven’t spent enough time with Lydia for it to feel quite “right,” even if I enjoyed some of her lines along the way.

The show has been pretty strong all season (I’ve only not been writing reviews due to some weekend plans which resulted in getting to the last few episode late), but this was one of those episodes that makes you realize there’s something more here than a funny comedy, and they’re capable of deploying it in the same episode as some really wonderfully ridiculous material from a self-deprecating Guttenberg.

Cultural Observations

  • Some nice subtle introduction of Christopher Mintz-Plasse as Roman’s writing partner, which may be pushing “guest” casting a tiny bit too far but which still works since Mintz-Plasse is such a convincing hard sci-fi nerd who isn’t quite as one-minded as Roman.
  • Lizzy Caplan and Adam Scott were both pretty terrific here: the readings from Roman’s script were really well-handled, in that they were funny scenes which were never turned into broad comedy, so when it eventually became a turning point for Casey’s attempts to get Henry to reconnect with his acting past it didn’t feel like a tonal mashup.
  • Ron kind of got the short end of the straw in this one, as the whole “shrimp in the filter” thing never really came together – however, that being said, the idea of Ron failing miserably at AA worked as a way of problematizing the New New Ron, so that’s a start.
  • To pick up on the metaphor in “James Ellison Funeral,” this episode first looks like it’s going to be Fireworks, but it’s actually a crockpot.
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2 Comments

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2 responses to “Party Down – “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday”

  1. Pingback: Top 10 Episodes of 2010: “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” (Party Down) | Cultural Learnings

  2. I think the main question you’re asking is: Is is it worthwhile for a show to go (and I’m just going to coin my own term here) off-concept for an episode. Could you have an episode of Pushing Daisies where they’re not using Ned’s powers to solve a mystery or an episode of House that doesn’t take place in a hospital and doesn’t involve diagnosing a patient (Scrubs, might be a more likely candidate for one of these episodes). That’s a whole separate article.

    I’m inclined to say, that with Party Down, because there are only 20 episodes total and the basic format is such a winning one that when I watched the whole series many times over after discovering the show after it’s 20th ep. had aired, that the Steve Guttenburg episode is always the one I feel like skipping. I find it unnecessary.

    Sure, if there were a lot more episodes, you could easily have them all go to Disneyland for a day, but as for what’s the best use of 20 episodes? I say have them all be catering episodes. Over the course of the series, you regularly had those moments where the line between being guests at the parties they were at vs. being on duty were blurred: Casey possibly getting it on with Rick Fox, Kyle trying to save the theater, Kyle learning the Blues, Henry volunteering to coach Arden Myrin, Kyle hooking up with the home owner’s daughter, Ron almost joining the porn industry, Roman trying to learn about woman from Kyle at the porn party, Ron putting the team through team building exercises, etc. etc. etc.
    Most of the situations above were not necessarily related to them being caterers

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