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The series makes a triumphant return by embracing the passage of time
It's difficult not to approach every reboot, reimagining, and remix with some amount of skepticism. There's been a relentless influx of bad revivals lately. All we can hope is that the best ones honor the original material, refresh what needs updating, and prove the original show still has a place in today's culture (no pressure). Party Down's long-awaited third season, premiering Feb. 24 on Starz, is largely able to achieve all of those things. The fact of the matter is that fans waited over a decade for what amounts to six half-hour episodes of TV, but the cult comedy makes its brief comeback feel worth it by returning with its signature irreverence and fresh perspective.
Party Down first premiered in 2009, right before it started to become the norm for every sitcom to actually be a drama with occasional jokes, and followed a Hollywood-based catering team bouncing from party to party in a post-recession world. The series found a small but mighty legion of fans because it actually was a comedy that happened to be about a group of very sad people, mining acidic humor out of their sadness that it balanced with musings on ambition and failure. The caterers worked in one of the most undervalued subsections of the service industry, and most were more concerned with chasing larger dreams — of becoming famous actors or screenwriters, or managing an arm of the fastest-growing non-poultry, non-coffee franchise in all of Southern California — while some had already accepted defeat. They floated around the edges of fancy events, balancing trays of hors d'oeuvres and mingling with the rich as they were repeatedly confronted with the threat that their lives might never turn out the way they envisioned. The laughs came from the moments when they managed to spectacularly screw things up and from their absurd interactions with their clients. It remains one of the smartest shows about idiots to ever do it.
Season 3 picks up 10 years after the Season 2 finale, bringing the gang back together — all the original players, save for Lizzy Caplan, reprise their roles — to celebrate Kyle's (Ryan Hansen) newly acquired role in a corny-looking superhero movie. He's hired his old catering company, still led by Ron (Ken Marino), to work the party, which Roman (Martin Starr) immediately susses out as Kyle's way of taunting them with his success. Still, Henry (Adam Scott), Constance (Jane Lynch), and Lydia (Megan Mullally) come to pose dutifully for the group photos and half-heartedly catch up the way you do with former coworkers ("I'm a high school English teacher," Henry says, to which the eternally clueless Kyle replies, "Oh, nice! On what show?"). They're never expecting to see each other again, but of course, a series of mishaps that I won't spoil here sucks them all back into the world of catering.
Under the same creative team as the original series, Party Down recaptures a lot of what made its first two seasons special, with an added texture afforded by thoughtful acknowledgements of the passage of time. Every character is older but no wiser than they were when we last saw them. The worries their younger selves had about the future weren't unfounded, amplified by the way Casey's (Caplan) absence is addressed: She, in fact, ended up being the one to make it big. Some, like Roman, bitterly insist that this life has nothing further to offer them; others, like Ron, are undeterred by perpetual setbacks. Underachieving failed actor Henry falls somewhere in the middle, still getting recognized for his infamous beer commercial but willing to believe that's as far as he'll ever go. Maybe the show's observations on class and the service industry aren't as astute as they once were, but it stays shrewd with its explorations of aging and unfulfillment. If Party Down's first two seasons were about the fear that life will someday pass you by, its third act is all about how to go on living when you realize it has.
Party Down has always been the type of sitcom that operates on a droll downbeat, but it knows that being a comedy means telling jokes, and the dynamite cast doesn't miss a beat falling back into the show's rhythm. As Henry, whose sharp edges have been softened by the disappointment of his 40s, Scott remains the series' anchor and is given plenty of opportunities to show off his knack for mumbling a well-timed sardonic aside. It's also a pleasure to watch Starr and Hansen return to their bickering odd couple (who have always sort of needed each other, despite it all). Mullally continues to be a gift, while an always excellent Lynch gets some of the funniest lines of the season ("What are laws anyway but basically rules?"). And in another world, this review is entirely dedicated to the greatness of Ken Marino. We are so lucky to live in a world where he gets to be on our TVs, especially when he's playing Ron, king of the sympathetic losers, who's still keeping a white-knuckled grip on positivity and professionalism.
The show isn't as confident in its new characters, played by Jennifer Garner (!), Tyrel Jackson Williams, and Zoë Chao, though all do great work even when the material they're given lacks depth. You just can't help yearning for Scott and Caplan's explosive chemistry and wondering what magic they could have spun from the classic "exes coming back together after years apart" trope. (The writers do at least get in some good jokes about it: "Why root for them?" "Because they're both skinny, they both have brown hair…" "She could wear his jeans, no problem.") Garner's comedic talents are especially underutilized as Evie, one half of the new brown-haired skinny people romance that forms between herself and Henry. Still, Scott and Garner have a strong connection that makes them easy enough to root for, and she's hilarious in the standout fourth episode when the caterers decide to do mushrooms at a radio station-sponsored luau. Even when Party Down nods frequently at stale topics like cancel culture, the pandemic, or Gen Z-created internet trends, the cast has a collective enthusiasm that keeps things moving smoothly along.
There are some some meta undercurrents running throughout the season, both implicit (as the show jokes about superhero franchises, executive producer Paul Rudd is about to star in yet another Ant-Man movie; as their characters can't find fame, nearly every actor in the cast has become more famous than they were when the show first aired) and explicit (the first episode is full of acknowledgements that we're watching a reunion). Wisely, the series doesn't lean too hard into what could be an endless string of wink-wink humor, always better when it indulges in goofy hyperspecificity and stays close to its characters. Half the joke is usually in the party theme, while the other half lies in how the disaffected caterers react to the guests. All these years later, it's a formula that still works. It's not easy to return to anything after years of separation — a beloved TV show, an old job — but Party Down Season 3 proves that it still knows how to have fun.
Premieres: Friday, Feb. 24 at 9/8c on Starz
Who's in it: Adam Scott, Ken Marino, Jane Lynch, Martin Starr, Ryan Hansen, Megan Mullally, Jennifer Garner, Tyrel Jackson Williams, Zoë Chao
Who's behind it: Paul Rudd, John Enbom (iZombie, The Good Doctor), Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars), Dan Etheridge (Veronica Mars)
For fans of: The first two seasons of Party Down, cameos, having fun
How many episodes we watched: 5 out of 6