This review was first published February 16, 2023.
One of the most dangerous and alluring things about working in Hollywood is that, by its dint, being successful at your job is associated with having at least a modicum of fame.
And, while red-carpet interviews, IMDb credits or guaranteed obits in trade publications notwithstanding, nowhere is this have-have not divide more obvious than in the service industry. It’s one thing to want the career of someone else while you make minor ducats at a thankless job. It’s another when that thankless job is serving the very people who have the very thing you want.
This has been a theme in entertainment storytelling lately. Movies like The Menu and Glass Onion: A Knives Out Mystery and the latest season of the Netflix TV series You have all embraced the “eat the rich” trope with homicidal glee.
But, for the less blood-thirsty, I offer this exchange from the second season of Starz’s cult comedy Party Down. Meant as a pep talk from Martin Starr’s imposter-syndrome plagued aspiring sci-fi writer Roman to Ryan Hansen’s pretty boy actor Kyle after the latter gets some discouraging hard truths about his career, it speaks to how all-encompassing something that eludes you can be when it’s shoved in your face every day.
This is because the men have the conversation in someone else’s kitchen while they’re wearing starched white shirts and pink bow ties as employees for the Los Angeles-based Party Down catering. What’s worse: this host hopes everyone else will soon be in various stages of undress.
Kyle: “So you think I’m gonna make it?.”
Roman: “I think we’re all gonna make it.”
Kyle: “Do you think I’m gonna make it?.”
Roman: “Who’re you gonna believe? Some bitter wannabe who’s pissed from working a shitty, dehumanizing job… or me?”
If we’re charting a character’s wants and needs, what Roman wants is success. What he needs at that very moment is for Kyle to pull it together and get back out there to bar-tend that orgy.
Party Down was always about the fickleness of fame—or even the very definition of fame. Created in 2009 by four guys who know first-hand about the subject (Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas, actual Dorian Gray Paul Rudd, and writers John Enbom and Dan Etheridge) it was set mostly through the eyes of Adam Scott’s Henry, an actor who gets pulled back into this line of work just when he thought booking a national beer commercial was enough to get him out (he even had a catchphrase: “Are we having fun yet?”).
The second season finale, which was also the then-series finale, didn’t result in everyone finding fame. But it did end with former Party Down server/actor Constance (Jane Lynch) entering into an Anna Nicole Smith-like marriage to the wealthy Howard Greengold (Alex Rocco). Hired by the bride to play her reception, Kyle and his band Karma Rocket perform their hit “My Struggle,” which is about his determination to break into the industry and not at all Nazi propaganda.
Now, more than two decades later, a third season is coming to Starz. Set several years after the events of the second season finale and catching up with most of the main cast, the show proves that not much has changed about the industry or the people who serve it besides the power of the internet (one of the new Party Down employees, played by Brockmire actor Tyrel Jackson Williams, is a rising TikToker with dreams of making “content.” This term perplexes all of his much more jaded colleagues who are now in their 40s). While some peoples’ lives and careers have changed—and Starz’s detailed DNR list prohibits me from giving much specifics here—a gig like this is even more soul-crushing to those who have spent decades on the wrong side of the trays of chicken on sticks and salmon cornets. Now even Ken Marino’s Icarian Party Down boss, Ron Donald, dreams of taking his business to the next level and brings in “food artist” Lucy (Zoe Chao) to class up the menu.
The irony in Party Down’s return is its own meta-ness. The seeming perspicacity in the original casting meant catching several of these actors just as they went from recognizable faces to Emmy winners (Lynch and guest star Jennifer Coolidge), Emmy nominees (Scott) and presumptive Emmy nominees (Lizzy Caplan, who played aspiring comic Casey and who this year is being short-listed for her work in Hulu’s Fleishman’s in Trouble and perhaps also Paramount+’s Fatal Attraction).
Although it’s an actor’s job to embody different parts even as their stars rise, this is hard to ignore in this particular instance. And, to be fair, this isn’t a uniquely Party Down problem, and is really going to be an issue with any show (even tangentially) about Hollywood. The reason Bill Hader’s HBO dramedy Barry works is because that hitman-for-hire isn’t also known for his impressions; one of the most fascinating things about Entourage was it was one of the rare examples where the actors making the show were probably getting paid less than the characters they portrayed.
And the writers of Party Down Season 3 seem to know this, even if they don’t fully point it out. While Megan Mullaly has been in both iterations of the show playing a character as far removed from Will & Grace’s Karen as humanly possible, this season also stars Jennifer Garner as a delightfully quirky individual not dissimilar to the personality she displays on her Instagram channel (and you simply haven’t lived until you’ve seen the lady from Alias try to bathe a giant cat). As each episode is essentially a bottle episode set at a new event, the room for guest stars increases exponentially (hi, James Marsden and Judy Reyes).
The show could be required viewing for anyone hoping to move to Los Angeles and wanting to know what to expect; the TV version of “Take Fountain”. But what it misses, and what it always has missed, is that hating your job and coveting the one next to you is a sign of privilege. Los Angeles is a class system and the ego in the town can be abhorrent (it’s actually my argument for what makes our traffic and road rage so horrible; everyone’s so fed up with being yelled at all day that we take it out when we get on the road). But the majority of people who have jobs like the ones depicted in this show aren’t doing it in the name of “waiting while waiting tables.” They’re doing it because a minimum-wage job is what they can get and what keeps their family fed.
So make sure to tip them well.
Party Down Season 3 premieres Friday, February 24th on Starz.
Whitney Friedlander is an entertainment journalist with, what some may argue, an unhealthy love affair with her TV. A former staff writer at both Los Angeles Times and Variety, her writing has also appeared in Cosmopolitan, Vulture, The Washington Post and others. She lives in Los Angeles with her husband, son, and daughter.
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