There have been few TV shows this year that I'd been looking forward to seeing more than Party Down (which I finally did via Netflix). It's the brainchild of Rob Thomas and his minions, who previously created the superb teen mystery series Veronica Mars. It's a comedy with a promising premise -- an L.A.-based group of D-list actors and writers forced to eke out a living in the catering business. It features a cast of terrific cut-ups, an astounding number of whom appeared on Veronica. It premiered this past spring on Starz, a cable network allotting more creative freedom than the mainstream networks. It got great reviews from Alan Sepinwall and strong support from a small yet enthusiastic fan base. Why then do I find it so....repulsive?
Party Down is the kind of show that pops up every now and then (Buffalo Bill a classic example) that illustrates a good lesson: don't make all your characters assholes. Or, if they're not going to be likable, then at the very least they should be interesting. Even the bar-setter for discomfort humor, the original British The Office, had, behind David Brent's squirm-inducing shenanigans, a pair of sympathetic characters in Tim and Dawn; and the American version has the best sitcom ensemble currently on the tube, with an even more fully realized love story at its heart (reimagined as Jim and Pam). Party Down attempts to follow the Office template by focusing almost entirely on what happens on the job, leaving personal lives to what we overhear or to our imaginations; and it sets up a similar work-romance between caterers Henry (Adam Scott) and Casey (Lizzy Kaplan). The difference, though, is that we give a damn about the people on The Office, whereas Party Down, after its first season, hasn't given us a reason to care.
The casting of the leads was a fatal mistake. Henry, the frustrated actor whose fifteen minutes of fame (from a beer commercial where he uttered the catchphrase, "Are we having fun yet?") may be already up, was initially to be played by Paul Rudd. It's easy to see how Rudd's charm (or even John Krasinki's) would have fit the part like a glove, but movie stardom beckoned. (Rudd has remained one of the show's executive producers.) Adam Scott, who specializes in what Sepinwall would call "douchebaggery" (he guest-starred as a predatory teacher on an episode of Veronica Mars), has a handsome, low-key quality that doesn't completely translate into a human being. He makes Henry a passive narcissist, unable to connect with anyone else onscreen (or viewers offscreen). Lizzy Kaplan's more abrasive style, well-utilized in supporting roles in films like Mean Girls and Cloverfield, is borderline unbearable here. It's a bold stroke to make your leads unlikable -- and to have them hit the sack by the third episode -- but it can turn a twenty-eight minute episode into a long slog.
The supporting players don't fare much better. Jane Lynch, who has stolen many a scene in the films of Christopher Guest and Judd Apatow, is appallingly off-key as one of the older, more experienced caterers with an irredeemable resume of Porky's-type retreads. (Lynch, who had to leave the cast early due to a commitment on Glee, was replaced by Jennifer Coolidge, who is equally unimpressive.) Ditto Martin Starr, so funny and touching on Freaks and Geeks and in Adventureland, yet tone-deaf grating as the screenwriter-wannabe who, when he isn't catering, runs "a prestigious blog." Best by a mile is Ken Marino, who popped up semi-regularly as sleazy detective Vinnie Van Lowe on Veronica Mars but successfully creates a totally different character in the needy and insecure Ron Donald, team leader of the "Party Down" catering service who dreams of one day running a Soup-R-Crackers (say it fast) restaurant. Marino manages to walk Steve Carell's tightrope act of squirmy pathos, desperately wanting to earn his underlings' friendship and respect and receiving neither.
Of course any actor is ultimately only as good as his or her script, and the ten episodes of Party Down show Thomas and his co-creators in an especially mean-spirited mood. What would possess the people behind the sensitively-rendered sexual-assault arc on Veronica Mars to write a joke about a porno star being raped by her uncle? Do they think that drug use (Ecstasy, mushrooms, etc.) is inherently funny, devoid of any context? Even the best episode to date, "Celebrating Ricky Sargulesh," where the crew caters a Russian mafia gathering honoring the acquittal on a murder rap of one of their family (an uproariously menacing Steven Weber), trafficked in denigrating stereotypes without unearthing the humor that comes from surprising us with something new. Kristen Bell (Veronica herself) achieved this in the season finale, guesting as Uda, uber-competent head of the rival "Valhalla" catering service. Clad in Teutonic black, a Bluetooth perched over one ear, Bell spat vicious barbs like sunflower seeds, only to let down her guard and amusingly ask Henry out on a date. ("I'm normally not this abrasive....I like movies....I have a kid....But he's quiet.") Renewed for a second season, Party Down still has potential; dialed just to the left or right, its farcical situations might actually be funny. But the show needs to follow Bell's lead in realizing that for comedy to work, it needs to be shaken fresh to keep from curdling. "Are we having fun yet?" Why, no, not really.