“Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday”
Aired: May 21st, 2010
[Cultural Learnings’ Top 10 Episodes of 2010 are in no particular order, and are purely subjective – for more information, and the complete list as it goes up, click here.]
Along with Better Off Ted, I find it’s easy to forget about Party Down. Its short ten-episode seasons mean that it airs during a very concentrated period of time, and the transience of all but its central characters means that it doesn’t have quite the same cumulative impact of other series. Combine with the fact that the show did take a bit of time to get itself settled following the exit of Jane Lynch and the arrival of Megan Mullally, and that the show was sadly canceled earlier this year, you have a show which might not immediately spring to mind as a 2010 highlight.
However, “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” has resonated with me more than the series itself, for reasons which largely relate to its structural distinctiveness. You’ll find that this is a consistent criteria for a list like this one: rather than leaning towards prototypical episodes of a series (like, for example, Constance’s wedding in the case of Party Down) I tend to lean towards those which are trying something different. In this case, “Birthday” is both one of the series’ most postmodern episodes (what with Guttenberg, he who has been elevated by the Stonecutters, playing a version of himself) and one of its most naturalistic, with the caterers becoming partygoers in their own right. It is silly, as the show often was, but it leans more heavily on a version of reality which I found compelling and, more importantly, resonant.
We’ve always known that Roman was a screenwriter, and that Henry was once an actor, but sometimes it became easy to take that for granted – we hear about Roman’s ideas but in ways which make them seem like masturbatory ramblings of a science fiction nerd, and Henry’s acting career has always been defined exclusively by the “Are We Having Fun Yet?” commercial. What “Birthday” does is risk showing us the truth: in a setting where they are asked to be themselves, with the Gute as their spirit guide, both characters open their true selves to their peers and to the audience. Roman realizes that there is writing requires reading, while Henry rediscovers a passion for acting that he thought he had lost a long time ago.
And when I remember these two characters, I remember them in these modes: I remember Roman carrying his masterpiece, written on toilet paper, as he is put into an ambulance while tripping something fierce, and I remember Henry going into that room to audition for the first time in years. While the episode doesn’t cover every character’s final season arc, I think that it was the episode which most explicitly asked us the questions I consider to be the most important. And in that sense, the episode is more typical than it might seem: although it may take them out of their jobs as caterers, moving away from the central conflict of these creative people being forced to work this degrading job, it retains the sense of identity crisis. They seem just as uncomfortable being themselves as they seemed when they were wearing pink bow ties, a fact which embodies the deeper character development which made the series so successful.
You could argue that “Party Down Company Picnic” did many of these same things, but I have a soft spot for the Gute – his willingness to play with his own persona adds a nice touch of absurdity to the reality, and I like the closed, almost bottle-show esque feel to the proceedings. It’s subtle while maintaining the series’ distinctive silliness, and dramatic within abandoning the comic, delivering an episode which is markedly different without seeming disconnected from the series’ narrative (or its greatness).