Saturday, January 10, 2015

Way Behind the Curve: Partying with the Folks from Party Down

This post comes to you rather belatedly so I apologize in advanced for any mistakes in my memory. If I get my act together more in 2015, you'll be seeing some posts that really should be written sometime over the past two years or so instead of now. I'm hoping that it's, as the saying goes, "better late than never." With that said, let's proceed in to this post proper.

Some of you may know that I was a huge fan of the cult classic TV show Veronica Mars; it remains one of my go-to shows for when I've had a bad day and/or want something familiar. So when I heard that Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas also had a short-lived Starz TV show titled Party Down, I knew I would sooner or later need to watch this show as well. Sooner arrived when I scored an incredible Black Friday steal on both seasons of the show on DVD and proceeded to watch the show (note: this was several years ago now and hence where memory issues may arise).

Party Down focuses on a catering business that employs a number of wannabe actors and, in one case, a burned out actor. Steering the helm - or more, accurately trying to steer the helm, is Ron, who desperately wants to do well in the food service industry after his recovery from drugs and alcohol. In addition to Rob Thomas, Party Down reunites Veronica Mars writers/producers John Enbom and Dan Etheridge on the creative team along with Paul Rudd, who once guest starred on Veronica Mars. The cast (encompassing for this purpose series regular, recurring guests, and one-time guests) also includes a veritable who's who of Veronica Mars alum: Ryan Hansen, Adam Scott, Jane Lynch, Ken Marino, Jason Dohring, Steve Guttenberg, Enrico Colantoni, Ed Begley, Ryan Devlin, and Kristen Bell herself. 

All this seems to be pointing in the direction of Party Down plus me really hitting it off, right? Wrong. Despite soldiering through both full seasons (albeit only 20 episodes in total between the two of them), I found I could not really get into Party Down. For starters, it's essentially a sitcom. Strike one. Sitcoms and I rarely do well together, as I ranted about in length in a previous post. Granted, Party Down is a somewhat atypical sitcom going to places that most network sitcoms wouldn't touch. But still, you can't really change a leopard's spots and Party Down is what it is: a sitcom. And unfortunately, Party Down's very absurdity was sometimes its downfall for me. The more ridiculous and, frankly, downright slapstick the situations became, the less invested I became. The show could occasionally make me chuckle, but more often it left me shaking my head in wonderment - and not the good kind.

The second strike against the show was its characters. In my opinion, characters make or break a show. They don't necessarily have to be identifiable and/or likable characters, but they definitely have to be interesting. The characters in Party Down were quirky, but not necessarily that interesting considering that most of them were fairly one note. And they certainly weren't likable - self-absorbed, narcissistic, downright nasty, immature, and irresponsible are more fitting adjectives to describe the majority of them. Sure, I could feel moments of sympathy certainly for Ron who is hampered down by such reckless team members. Henry, the faded out actor who is still occasionally getting recognized for his past fame as the speaker of a catchphrase in a beer ad, also could have times where he was relatable and sympathetic, although as the series progressed he seemed to be further sucked into the dysfunction of his co-workers. The rest of the characters were really a pretty dismal lot and it was difficult to root for them - or even care about them - for much of the action. And, sadly, there was little growth or change for these characters. Yes, specific events - whether big or small - did make an impact on their lives in terms of things like getting a new job or ending a relationship. But in terms of their character traits, they showed little difference from the pilot to the final episode for the most part and even less in terms of positive moves. While the characters were generally unpleasant, lots of kudos go to the actors who were all magnificent at being awful characters, totally embodying these people for the duration.

Strike three was what seems to be my usual complaint for premium cable TV shows: just because you don't have censors and can do whatever doesn't always mean you should do whatever. While Veronica Mars was smart, witty, and frequently said more with less, Party Down was foul, crude, and often gratuitous. Characters curse at the drop of a pin, nudity for no particular reason abounds, and situations occur that probably wouldn't show up on network TV (like the group catering an orgy party on one occasion and an adult entertainment party on another). I certainly don't mind shows that manage to escape from unnecessary sanitation, but I also think that the rules of good writing still apply. Simply throwing in a dick joke when you could have been clever, relevant, and funny isn't going to suffice. And I hoped for more from the creators of something so genuinely brilliant as Veronica Mars, which succeeded at being clever, relevant, and funny as well as engaging and populated with interesting, layered characters and compelling story lines. Meanwhile, Party Down had the barest of story lines, with it often feeling like there was little carryover from one seemingly self-contained episode to another. 

One thing that the writers did do an excellent job at, however, was creating a show where we looked at only one aspect of the characters' lives - their time at work - and yet managing to covering a lot of ground despite the self handicap. Granted, they did have two things going in their favor:
1) Most of us do spend a great deal of our time at work so it is something that focuses a lot of our energy as well as the place where we do end up talking about everything else going on in our lives. For better or worse, our co-workers become our de facto family members. 
2) While we don't see the cast outside of their workplace, given the nature of their catering job, we aren't stuck with the same physical set over and over again. The characters travel to different parties in a variety of locales where we get to meet new (albeit, equally dislikable) characters all the time. Still, that's not a compelling enough reason to make this show great.

In case the point wasn't obvious yet, this is not a show I would recommend, which is sad because I do really believe that this team of writers/producers/creators can do fabulous work. But this show just didn't do it for me. Part of that was undoubtedly the disappointment created by hoping for another Veronica Mars and getting something so remarkably different from it. But part of it is also because this show was never going to be my "thing." My limited research on the show found that it received some positive critical praise but had low ratings, leading to it be cancelled after two seasons. Let me know hear your thoughts about the show below. Did you watch all 20 episodes? What were your thoughts on the crew at Party Down?

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