“The Bubble”/”Lil’ Sebastian”
May 19th, 2011
It’s unfortunate that I haven’t been able to review Parks and Recreation more regularly this season: while I had screeners for the first six episodes, anything after that proved difficult since so much of my Thursday evenings was spent watching and writing about The Office for The A.V. Club. Obviously, given my affection for the show, I always watched it as soon as possible, and have felt that the third season has been a strong continuation of the momentum gained during a stellar second season.
However, I find myself in the position of being more critical of the show than I’ve been all year in regards to “The Bubble” and “Lil’ Sebastian,” two very funny episodes that felt rushed from a plot perspective. Even as someone who has been on board with Ben and Leslie’s relationship this season, something about its presence in these episodes gave me pause. Everything just felt like it was moving too quickly, and in a way which was considerably more transparent than the rote, yet still fairly passive, romantic chemistry that has been building throughout the season.
Which is not to say that my opinion of the show has diminished (it has not), or that these were bad episodes (they were very good); It’s simply that this particular season finale got a bit lost in the plot, never quite able to focus on telling the kinds of stories I feel the show is most effective at telling.
“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.
“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.
“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.
February 11th, 2010
I wrote about Valentine’s Day episodes on Wednesday night, and in the process I argued that I prefer shows which use the holiday to service their existing universe rather than forcing their universe to conform to the holiday. Accordingly, I was legitimately excited about how Parks was going to handle the holiday, because the show has a lot of characters in love, falling in love, or in a position where love is possible but perhaps not materializing as they might have wanted.
“Galentine’s Day” manages to handle those relationships with a subtlety beyond most shows in their second season, building the episode around a romantic story which loses its romance once it enters reality, in the process shedding light on the state of the show’s various relationships. And since, as noted, I’m more invested in these relationships than I had realized, it made for a great episode for a lot of different characters.
The Game vs. The Players
A Cultural Learnings Reality Roundup
In our weekly glimpse into the world of Survivor: Samoa, Top Chef, and Project Runway, it’s important to distinguish between the game and the players of that game. Every episode of all three shows is essentially about the way the producers construct the game (the challenges, the conditions, the time limits, even the casting itself), and the players are forced to interpret and operate within that game as they see fit. So when you find yourself frustrated with a fairly boring season of Project Runway, or impatient with a season of Top Chef, or find Survivor’s villains too much to handle, you need to ask yourself if this it the result of the game or the people who are playing it.
In all three episodes of these three shows this week, we saw situations where the game took control of the players, and where their sewing, their cooking and their scheming felt so clearly defined by the game that I was simultaneously interested and bored. It’s the ultimate test of any group of reality contestants, though, to be forced into a situation the producers have designed: do they strike out on a unique course, indicating that they’re a real rebel, or whether they fall right in with the expectations put in front of them.
It’s a process which makes me doubt Runway, trust Top Chef, and change my mind about a few Survivor players.
“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.
“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.