Season (Series?) Finale: Party Down – “Constance Carmell Wedding”

“Constance Carmell Wedding”

June 25th, 2010

In some ways, there could never be a perfect finale for Starz’ Party Down. The show is about people confronting the fact that they might be living their finale, that working for a catering company may be the highest rung they will climb in southern California, and so “endings” are inherently unnatural. Instead, the characters are in a constant state of waiting to become, working hard or hardly working towards the end goal of achieving great success in their chosen field. And so while this may well end up the series finale (due to Starz reinventing itself as a genre network under new management and the middling ratings for the series) of Party Down, it is an episode about failed beginnings more than endings.

While very funny and quite poignant in a number of areas, “Constance Carmell Wedding” suffers a bit under the weight of those final moments, unsure of who would be returning for the following season or if there would even be a following season. Constance’s return is most welcome, and the focus on career goals is well met, but there’s a point where a half-hour comedy just can’t carry the weight of beginnings, endings, reunions, unions and everything else in between.

However, let’s not pretend this means I won’t miss the show should it truly be done, or that I didn’t find the second season to be particularly strong: while it may not have all come together perfectly, it was a confident second season which built on the first season’s success without abandoning its winning formula, and I sincerely hope that the show gets a reprieve if only to see what a third season would look like for these character I’ve come to admire.

I love Jane Lynch, and I loved Jane Lynch returning to the character of Constance Carmell, but I think that before this episode I didn’t particularly miss Constance. I had accepted that she had moved onto bigger things, and that the show worked better if this catering company took on new members and didn’t maintain the same group forever, so once I got used to Megan Mullally’s Lydia I sort of moved beyond Constance. However, the finale sent me straight back to nostalgia, remembering how Constance’s naivete could be so very, very charming. The episode got some good mileage out of the two women being competitive, albeit Lydia doing so unintentionally, but when you place Lydia as the voice of practicality and Constance of the voice of hope, optimism and love, how are we not going to side with Constance on a show where we want so much for these characters to succeed? And when Constance cheers on Ron’s declaration of love unfailingly even as it destroys a marriage and gets him hit in the face?

The episode shouldn’t be entirely about Constance, but we kind of naturally gravitate towards her. She started dating Howard in order to get a role, and there’s a throughline in the episode about Henry and Casey being concerned about whether or not she is really in love with him. And there’s an honesty when Constance talks about her love in the context of the part and not the man, but it seems like she’s reconciled it, taking a chance of love in order to take a chance on recapturing past success. And in the end, she is rewarded in a way: she loses out on love, and perhaps the part as well, when Howard dies within fifty feet of his wedding, but he purposefully leaves her without having signed a pre-nup, giving her some part of the life that she always dreamed of. In Constance we find a story about what happens when someone goes out on a limb, when they risk everything and end up with an ending they couldn’t have imagined.

As John Enbom pointed out in his interview with Alan Sepinwall about the season, it sort of goes back to Steven Guttenberg’s advice that 9 out of 10 people who put themselves out there will find success, although this being Party Down there are traditional and non-traditional ways to do so. Casey auditioned for an Apatow movie, getting the part only to find the part cut from the final picture. Her failure is devastating, and I would agree with those who found her response unsympathetic: surrounded by people who couldn’t even get an audition for such a part, the experience was nonetheless a stepping stone, which is tough to see in the moment but which should become clear over time. Having put herself out there and been rewarded for it, she started imagining red carpets with her mother, so to lose all of that would take the wind out of even someone who has struggled for a number of years. I think she’s earned the right to be unsympathetic, and I think anything else would have been unrealistic.

As for Kyle and Roman, the two characters have sort of been on opposite ends of the spectrum this season: while Roman has had a number of focus episodes (like “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday Party” and “Joel Munt’s Big Deal Party”), Kyle never really got an episode in which to shine, which makes Ryan Hansen’s pending exit a little bit more sad. You can see in the episode that Kyle is never going to really engage with the narratives of becoming, at least not knowingly: while he’s always trying to make it big, he’s too untalented to actually do anything worthwhile except for creating a highly offensive song about stardom which uses intense Holocaust imagery. By comparison, Roman gets really high in what seems like a silly little comic storyline, but he proceeds to potentially create his sci-fi masterpiece on a roll of toilet paper – while Kyle puts himself out there and embarrasses himself (with even cheerleader Constance realizing his error, with Lydia proving more clueless), Roman accidentally opens his mind through the marijuana and potentially (althoughly not likely) achieving a breakthrough. I’ll be sad to lose Kyle (should the show continue) in terms of his dynamics with the other characters, but his personal journey has been comparatively (although fittingly) shallow, so Roman is definitely the character with more potential and whose journey has the most connection to the finale’s themes.

If there was one character I’d call a disappointment in this episode, it would be Ron, if only because he felt too connected to Constance’s wedding rather than developing a story of his own. Ever since his return following his Soup ‘R Crackers adventure, Ron has been searching for a purpose, and while I like that they’ve been slowly building towards his play for Operations Manager and his relationship with Danielle it never really had a chance to develop. When it became a central storyline at the wedding, I felt like I had no real connection to it, and that the stakes were extremely low: while I liked how Constance responded to the situation, and it worked with Ron’s general ability to embarrass himself, it seemed like Ken Marino never really got a well-developed story this year. Adding romance to the equation wasn’t a terrible idea, but it spread it all a bit thin, and I felt it was the weak link thematically speaking within the finale.

The strongest link, not surprisingly, is Henry, who decides to finally step up to the plate and get back his career after finding a role through Kyle that he thinks would suit him quite well. It’s picking up on a number of threads throughout the season (Henry’s dissatisfaction with the domestic life he led with Uda, his experience acting out Roman’s screenplay at Guttenberg’s), and it also feels like the right time for Henry to reconnect with his acting career. I like that it’s such a multi-faceted decision, with Henry doing it for himself, for Casey (to prove that giving up isn’t an option, even after years of setbacks), and to some degree for Constance (who has always been so confident in her decisions). I loved the way that Henry and Casey served as Constance’s guardians in the episode, and I think doing so inspired Henry to take this particular leap, and if this is truly the final moments for the character it is a small moment of hope for the person who always seemed like someone who could make it if he only took that leap once more. And if the show continues, and we get three final glimpses into Henry’s life, then there’s every chance he made a name for himself, that he moved onto something bigger and better than catering.

In that sense, I think “Constance Carmell Wedding” sold the central premise of the show quite effectively – thematically speaking, this was a strong half-hour for the notion of stardom and its defeatist and wearying qualities for people looking to break through. As an episode of the series, though, it wasn’t as strong as it could have been: with so many different foci to be worried about, none of the jokes hit quite as hard, the finale perhaps influenced unfairly by the bittersweet knowledge (not present at the time of filming) that this is a very complicated goodbye. Constance’s wedding couldn’t become as madcap as other situations because we don’t want her character to be hurt, and as a result it seems like the characters reach either premature or shortened climaxes in terms of their arcs in the individual episode. There are some funny lines, and I quite liked the guest appearances (Patrick Duffy perhaps being the most bizarre and enjoyable), but the episode isn’t an all-time classic.

But does it need to be? I think part of what makes Party Down so unique is that in some ways the episode where things happen to the characters are inevitably going to be less satisfying, their real lives interrupting the potential for each episode’s story to really develop in a clever way. While one could argue that the best episodes (like “Sargulesh” and “Guttenberg”) have been about the characters, they haven’t really had the characters do anything in particular, the half-hours playing around with the characters and their state of mind without really pushing them in any direction. Here, so many characters were making bold statements or putting themselves out there that there was no central storyline, Constance’s wedding serving a as a story in its own right (picking up her character from the first season) and as a thematic link for everything else, the kind of structure that isn’t going to create a superb episode of this series but is going to create a meaningful half-hour for the series as a whole.

I don’t think this is what one would call a perfect series finale, as there is both a) no such thing and b) certainly no such thing for a show that we want to see come back. If this is truly the end, I think it embodied enough of what made the show more than just a hilarious comedy series that I would be as satisfied as I could possibly be considering the circumstances. And if the show goes onto the third season, I suspect it would see some major changes: loses Henry would be a huge blow, and filling that gap won’t be as easy as filling out the supporting characters, and to some degree it would be an entirely different show should it continue.

For now, I will simply enjoy the sharpness of this past season, accepting that the second season itself was a turn of fortune for a show which has been the very antithesis of success in terms of traditional metrics.

Cultural Observations

  • It took me a while to place the dude playing Danielle’s fiance, but I eventually imagined him with a lisp and figured out it was Kripke from The Big Bang Theory. Was glad I didn’t think of that during the episode, as it would have made me angry.
  • If you are for some reason reading this review as a fan of Party Down who didn’t follow Adam Scott to Parks and Recreation, I sincerely suggest you do so – great character, on a great show, you can’t go wrong.
  • In terms of a final judgment on Lydia, Megan Mullally meshes well with the cast and the character eventually came into her own. The problem was that it took so long for us to meet Escapade that I struggled to connect Lydia with the struggles facing people trying to make it in show business: while the other characters could sort of talk through and act out their troubles within the catering environment, Lydia’s characterization seemed to rely on exposition created through her talkative nature, making it feel unnatural. By comparison, “Party Down Company Picnic” allowed that part of her life to shine through, and the show was better for it – same goes for her romantic life merging with her management life in “Cole Landry’s Draft Day Party.”
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5 Comments

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5 responses to “Season (Series?) Finale: Party Down – “Constance Carmell Wedding”

  1. I thought it was a near perfect finale. The episode captured the essence of the entire show: while these characters are not successful, they continue trying to succeed, which is what endears them to the audience. The shot of Henry walking into his Velour audition was deeply affecting.
    I also ended up loving Lydia, and her story with Constance was great. But Constance was almost too heavy of a focus for the episode.
    I felt the story of Ron this season was fitting. It was another lesson in failure for the character, but it ended up allowing him to re-evaluate his life and see that he just wanted love. And the way he achieved love through an awkward situation was so fitting.
    Lastly: you’re lucky you didn’t recognize Kripke. I couldn’t stop imagining the lisp in my head.

  2. dom

    I just watched the episode, then read this immediately after. You’re a fantastic writer. I don’t agree with everything you’ve said, but I’m really excited to see someone taking the time to break down and analyze this show piece by piece. Very, very well done.

  3. Pingback: “Party Down” sadly canceled « Beau Apples Prose

  4. dan

    Appreciate the write-up as usual, but I left the episode with a much more positive outlook than you did. I do agree that it was a whole lot packed into 22 minutes — if ever a Party Down episode deserved an hour, it was this one — but I thought it provided pretty satisfying closes for many of the characters (though I agree Kyle was shortchanged).

    More importantly, I thought its thematic struggle — idealism vs. pragmatism — hit on the show’s premise very strongly. It gave us a variety of spins on that theme and ended in a way that brought the series full circle. Excellent, excellent finale in my opinion.

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

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