“Stennheiser-Pong Wedding Reception”
May 22nd, 2009
There’s an argument to be made that Party Down is the season’s strongest new comedy, and it’s one that has become progressively easier to make as the season continues. Not to disparage Better Off Ted (which is good but not particularly revolutionary), or The United States of Tara (which was a drama before it was a comedy, realistically speaking), but this out of nowhere Starz series from Rob Thomas and John Enbom simply presented the most complete comedy to debut. A strong ensemble cast is supported by a series of constantly changing party scenarios, ranging from the ridiculous to the personal, where recognizable actors show up as guest stars to complicate the lives of the characters involved; it doesn’t sound too complicated when you really think about it, but it’s essentially an absurdist procedural dark comedy series, and one that has been remarkably consistent.
“Stennheiser-Pong Wedding Reception” is a strong way to end such a consistent season, if not the show’s best episode: like many other comedies, the show is often as its most effective when dealing with heavier dramatic material but at the same time can lose something of its essence. The presence of Kristen Bell (Veronica Mars) helps to elevate the finale from a comic level, and Jennifer Coolidge’s continuing guest stint in place of Jane Lynch brings something fun to the table, but this episode is far less about the scenario than it is about the characters. While the series has often ignored the reality of catering in order to allow the characters to mingle about and face little to no actual work, here the whole point is that there is real work: this is the real world, and if you can’t take the heat get out of the barn.
And by the end of the episode, everyone but Henry sort of does.
For the most part Ron and Henry are the show’s two leads, each heading down slightly different paths: Henry’s starting to view this job as an opportunity to get paid, hang out with his girlfriend, and not actually have any stress or responsibility, while Ron is at the point where he no longer believes his own motivational babble (with or without $76 cue cards) and is beginning to lose faith in his self-delusion that this job is anything approaching impressive or cool. They have more or less switched places: when the series begin, Henry was highly demotivated and disengaged with his existence (like accepting the handjob from the cougar at the homeowners’ party) and Ron was in control even though he was bumbling his way through his existence for our comic amusement.
But what works so well about the series is that you can see how what we’ve seen thus far would bring them to this point. Henry has slowly become more comfortable, such as having to own up to his quasi-celebrity while celebrating Ricky Sargulesh or getting burned while trying to grab a gig at the sweet sixteen party; we’ve seen him be faced with his former “glory” and come away relatively unscathed, and with Casey there to kind of buoy his spirits. Ron, by comparison, has just been beat down time and time again, and this episode is a direct consequence of last week’s high school reunion, where Ron attempted to prove he was something by catering, convinced Molly Parker that he was capable of being a decent human being, but then gave himself alcohol poisoning and lost all control of the situation again.
Their role reversal in the episode, as Ron’s post-reunion bender continues and Henry is forced to pick up the slack, is a good place to put the two characters, especially once Ron leaves to open his Soup ‘R Crackers. Henry has to come to terms with the fact that he is the kind of person who would take over this franchise, that he would both be Ron’s choice and be motivated to do so – whereas everyone else is motivated by something else, whether it’s a job offer, doing “anything” for a job, exploring the unconscious of nature or stalking George Takei, he is the one person who is concerned about Ron’s well-being, the franchise’s success, and some sort of sense of personal accomplishment. Ron being plucked to run the new franchise is, ultimately, karma for how many years he suffered in the same position: yes, he fell apart over time, but his dedication, however precarious it was for his personal safety and emotional well-being, paid off in the end.
That’s really been the mantra of the series, and something that Casey had to face in the finale: trying to discern between a dumb job that is dumb, and a dumb job that could turn into something, is not an easy thing for someone to do, especially when they’re chasing fame or worse of all someone who used to chase fame. Casey takes the job on the cruise ship because it’s six months of steady work, and while we can presume the show getting a season two is going to require that the gig be terrible, or at the very least just another false hope in an endless series of false hopes, she doesn’t really have a choice: until she gets to the point where Henry is, or when Ron was, where the dream is no longer what drives them and benefits and a pay raise are all it takes to sway you, she’s going to have to take those chances.
The supporting characters don’t quite have substantial existential crises of this nature, but they nonetheless fit into the same mould: sure, Roman doesn’t actually care about his job when he abandons his post by the bathrooms in order to stalk George Takei, and Kyle isn’t concerned about the reputation of Valhalla catering when he inadvertantly offers himself sexually to Stennheiser and then another producer in order to land a gig, and Bobbie (guest star Jennifer Coolidge) is tripping on shrooms so she doesn’t even care about pretty much anything. What works about these characters is that, other than Bobbie (and Constance, who similarly lives in another world altogether), you can see the moments where Roman and Kyle realize their behaviour crosses a line, or at the very least we can clearly see the moments where that happens. Yes, the storylines are played mostly for humour, like George Takei’s severely bloated face, but they are not mindless comedy sequences: they are, instead, yet another evolution in that transition from the world of show business into the world where being a cater waiter probably doesn’t look so bad.
The show is built to allow for this because the weekly guest stars can be used to both cultivate and augment this behaviour. Kristen Bell, being as fantastic and awesome as she proved herself to be on Thomas’ Veronica Mars, is able to do both: she cultivates the behaviour by creating the panic in Ron, and the pressure on Henry to step up to the plate, and the right amount of tough love to keep Henry and Casey from stopping to talk about their situation with threats of bringing in Henry Duck. At the same time, she was also a hilarious character in her own right: her various retorts, to Roman and Kyle in particular, were perfect for breaking up the dramatic tension of a lot of the rest of the episode. We’re still waiting for Bell to get her big break: she’s been focusing on movie work recently, and I wish her all the luck in that, but she’s so strong doing TV stuff that I can’t help but feel that seeing her every week would be highly preferable. Uda was the perfect character to enter into this universe at this time, and Bell was definitely the right choice to play her.
Similarly, Jennifer Coolidge may not quite be Jane Lynch, but she is more than capable of bringing the funny: it was the most basic of drug trip humour, but it was just really well placed as a breather in the episode, and “Sun Eggs” and “Grandpa’s Eyes” were so downright bizarre that I nearly had to pause the DVR to make sure I had heard them correctly. It still isn’t clear to what degree Lynch will be available next season with her role on Glee, but Coolidge would be an acceptable substitute considering her performances here and last week, and she could do even more if the writers were building scripts around her as opposed to repurposing Constance’s lines for her (as had to be done here due to the short notice of Lynch’s pilot filming).
The episode leaves us at an interesting point leading into Season Two: Kyle is scheduled to star in a base-jumping movie after trading sexual favours, Roman nearly killed George Takei, Casey is off to spend six months of a cruise ship, Ron’s about to start his new franchise, Henry has taken over the staff, and we’re not sure if Bobbie or Constance will be back. The main cast, all except Jane Lynch who remains a question mark, have signed on to return, so the changes here are unlikely to be permanent. However, you have to ask whether you try to mess with this formula: with so many comic highlights, and enough dramatic pathos to inspire this lengthy blog post, is there really any reason to screw around with what’s working so well? Do you consider adding another member of the wait staff, or perhaps a recurring character who appears in more than one episode?
It’s hard to know: I definitely would love to see Kristen Bell return (made possible by her crush on Henry at episode’s end and her position as the leader of a rival catering company), and I think that Thomas, Enbom and Paul Rudd have enough connections to pull in another fantastic supporting player should they so desire, but things just worked so well this year that I don’t expect many changes. Thomas and Enbom both did interviews with Alan Sepinwall, which you can find over at his blog, that seem to indicate that season two could simply be the show’s potential amped up: they wrote episodes not knowing who they were going to cast, which perhaps explains both why the later episodes were so much stronger and why it’s easy to have even higher hopes for season two.
For now, Starz truly has a hit on their hands, and I think they realize it. Unfortunately, their size as a network and the lack of availability of the show will likely keep it out of Emmy contention, something that may have been rectified should the show have been on Showtime or HBO, but Starz stepped up to the plate to let these guys create the show they wanted to create, little or no questions asked, and treated it better than any other network could have. So, while it will results in having to write a post about how many of these people should be nominated for Emmys and how none of them will, I’d say it was probably worth it for a season one that I will easily buy on DVD, lend to friends, and do everything in my power to keep on the air for as long as it remains funny.
And if that means standing by a sign which says “Hilarious Comedy” with an arrow pointing to Party Down and making sure people understand, I’ll be more than happy to do so.
- I’m still trying to decide between my two Kristen Bell line readings: it’s either “This isn’t f**king baseball!” or “I didn’t, but I still get the irony” to Roman. Bell was also strong throughout with the various bluetooth headset gags: they were quite subtle, never played broadly, but Bell was just so perfect at tapping the headset and jaunting off. I also loved “no Holocaust shit” in the coda…hell, I loved pretty much all of it, who am I kidding?
- For the most part the actual Stennheiser-Pong Wedding Reception took a backseat (outside of a brief comment from high as a kite Bobbie, the fact that it was a gay marriage wasn’t consequential), as the Barn away from the action became the real party setup. This let the series operate as if there were far bigger celebrities present than there actually were without having to cheat (Sir Elton, for example), which was a smart choice in an episode that focused so heavily on the characters instead.
- If I had to choose a single performer to gain Emmy consideration, to preview my eventual “Seriously, I’m pissed about Party Down not getting Emmy attention” post, it would likely end up being Ken Marino – I didn’t blog about last week’s episode, but he was downright fantastic in it, and he has really surprised me with the depth of his work on the show.
- This was, of course, a Veronica Mars reunion with Bell, Hansen, and Marino – I’m glad the show didn’t wink at us with this too much, but at the same time was glad that they gave Hansen/Bell a chance to play off of one another as they were always a fun pairing on Thomas’ former series.
- As for Jane Lynch, there’s two scenarios: Glee is airing in the Fall, but they’ve already shot six episodes and the show is going on hiatus likely until March once December kicks around. This could theoretically give them time to shoot around Lynch should the Glee schedule either shoot all of the episodes early in the season to air later or, conversely, to take a break in production in the Fall before kicking up again in January or something similar. It is quite funny, though, how much the scenario mirrors Casey’s in the finale, choosing the more steady job over the one that might be a bit more fun or freeing, except that Glee looks pretty damn fun too.