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Top 10 Episodes of 2010: “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” (Party Down)

“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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Big Like: Appreciation vs. Adoration in Three Seasons of HBO’s Big Love

Big Like: Appreciation vs. Adoration for Three Seasons of HBO’s Big Love

January 10th, 2010

About a month ago, I pulled my copy of Big Love Season 1 off of my “DVDs I bought but never watched” shelf and popped the first disc into my DVD player. It was a show that I missed because of its strange schedule, the first two seasons airing before I got “really” into serious dramatic television and the third season only airing after a considerably long gap. So while some critics were calling Big Love’s third season (which aired early in 2009) its best, and while the show turned up on multiple “Best of” lists at the end of the year, I was definitely out of the loop with an impulse purchased Season 1 DVD set waiting for the day when I would eventually decided to catch up.

Now that this moment has finally come, I’m discovering just why Big Love is such a divisive show amongst critics. Maureen Ryan posted a great piece this week on the idea that there are shows which you know are good, but that you also know are not the right show for you. She lists Big Love (and Breaking Bad, which is also sitting on the aforementioned shelf) as examples of this phenomenon, and I can entirely see where she’s coming from. Meanwhile, critics like James Poniewozik and Jace Lacob are very much in love with the series, while Alan Sepinwall sits in that critical position of wanting the show to focus more on the parts he finds interesting (which, considering how the show toyed with this idea at points of the third season, is not an unreasonable desire).

Considering the nature of the television critics’ community, when I catch up with a show I can’t help but place my own thoughts in context of their own. And when it comes to HBO’s Big Love, I sit somewhere between appreciation and adoration, mediating my enjoyment of the show’s complex personal relationships and value systems with my frustration with some of the show’s pacing. The third season has gone a long way to convincing me, however, that despite my reservations at times, this is a show that is “for me.”

It might, however, be a show for me to like instead of love when it returns for its fourth season tonight at 9pm ET on HBO and HBO Canada.

[Spoilers for the first three seasons of Big Love after the jump]

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Party Down – “Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh”

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“Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh”

May 8th, 2009

Outside of some belated thoughts on the series’ pilot, I haven’t spent much time blogging Starz’s Party Down – things have been pretty busy during a majority of its run, and I ended up falling a bit behind before catching up a few weeks ago. Plus, the critics received the entire season ahead of time, so Alan Sepinwall (in particular) has been posting highly detailed reviews every week that, combined with the series’ remarkable consistency, have made my own desire to write about the show fairly minimal.

But “Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh” was just so damn genius that I had to put in my two cents about the ways in which it was emblematic of the best qualities of the season’s strongest new comedy (sorry, Better Off Ted). The show follows a pretty basic formula, taking its cast of characters and placing them into a new ridiculous setting each week. This, in and of itself, makes the series feel particular fresh: because it doesn’t follow the traditional sitcom model of focusing on a single place or particular atmosphere, the show is able to vary its storytelling and its focus from episode to episode, and the characters are able to have a broad range of experiences without the show feeling too gimmicky.

What really makes an episode like this one work, though, is the way in which setting and character interact. The setting was perhaps the series’ most outlandish, a Russian mafia “celebration” of a mobster’s acquital for murder, with a ridiculous guest performance by Steven Weber that still has me laughing. However, the reason the episode was so strong is how much this appealed to the side of these characters that they’re forced to hold back while working as cater waiters: by tapping into their desire to be celebrities, or their highly active imaginations, everyone but Ron were able to at least partially enter into that part of their lives that being a cater waiter was supposed to make impossible, and out of fear for his own life Ron has to let it happen.

There are very few comedies on television were the most fundamentally ridiculous of scenarios can actually say more about characters than something inherently dramatic, and Party Down can certainly enter that club with this gem.

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