If The Office weren’t censored by the FCC, and the show’s producers didn’t care about appealing to a demographic that can actually afford to buy products, it might look more like Party Down. The Starz original series is a half-hour workplace comedy that feels mostly improvised, but it never breaks the fourth wall and never expects a smirk toward the camera to replace a punchline.
A summary of the first season reads like the premise was Xeroxed straight from The Office’s template, with just enough details changed to avoid a lawsuit: As team leader for Party Down catering, Ron Donald (Ken Marino in his best role since he dipped his balls in The State) is an inappropriate and awkward boss and the subject of a lot of squirm comedy, but he’s also sympathetic, or at least pathetic enough to pity. He dreams of running his own Super Crackers franchise, but he needs to convince his boss, Alan Duk (Ken Jeong, aka the naked tire-iron wielder in The Hangover), he’s capable of handling the responsibility. Unfortunately for Ron, his team is more concerned with establishing a foothold in show business than waiting on the guests at the parties, high-school reunions, and adult-film award shows they’ve been contracted to cater. The chemistry between bartending everyhunk Henry Pollard (Adam Scott) — a Vicodin-popping “retired” actor forced to return to his day job after finding brief success with a beer-commercial catch phrase — and Casey Klein, an aspiring comic whose husband has taken a job in Vermont, is established almost immediately, but they don’t string out the consummation across a seasons-long story arc. Casey’s filing for divorce and pouncing on Henry by episode three.
The first-season finale punched the plot in the kidneys by giving Ron his franchise, sending Casey on a six-month cruise gig, and promoting Henry to team leader, which allows season two, set nine months later, to take on a slightly different dynamic. Casey’s returned, of course, but she claims to be seeing someone, and Henry, who is now “paid enough to give a shit,” is involved with his counterpart at Party Down rival Valhalla Catering — the awesomely obscene Uda Bengt (Kristen “Veronica Mars” Bell). Team Uta, anyone?
So you could make Office comparisons all day, but more compelling than the romantic angle (which has never really progressed past casual, on-the-job hide ’n’ hump, anyway) are the interactions between the ensemble cast. Jane Lynch stole every second she appeared onscreen as drug casualty and failed actress Constance Carmell, but Lynch left the show last season to take a spot on Glee. Will & Grace’s Megan Mullally has done a decent job replacing Carmell with spacey stage mom Lydia Dunfree. Mullally minus a network censor is a pretty incredible experience, but her character is still being established. Hopefully she’ll soon be more than just the weird lady. Martin Starr (aka Bill from Freaks and Geeks) plays the nerdy, sci-fi obsessed aspiring screenwriter Roman DeBeers, who never bothers to disguise his hate for pretty boy model-actor-rock-band-frontman-waiter Kyle Bradway (Ryan Hansen, another Veronica Mars alum), but their rivalry doesn’t usually shake out the way you’d expect. Roman is such a bitter, hate-filled dick, you usually, but not always, wind up rooting for dopey, seemingly benign Kyle. The dynamic of their relationship seems to be the only one that hasn’t changed significantly from last season to this one.
In the first two episodes, we’ve learned that Ron’s Super Crackers “cratered,” and he’s been forced to come back to Party Down as Henry’s subordinate, which he’s expectedly resentful about. The season so far seems to be moving toward reestablishing the original equilibrium, but that may not even be an option. Adam Scott’s become a regular character on NBC’s own Office riff, Parks and Recreation, and will probably leave the show, and that may wind up spoiling Party. Tune in before it’s too late, and if nothing else, maybe the extra viewers will convince Starz that well-written, R-rated sitcoms can be at least as worthwhile as showing Uncle Buck 14 times in a row. •
A new episode of Party Down airs 9 p.m. Friday, May 7, on Starz. Watch previous episodes online at Starz.com