Par... ty... Down?

This weekend I watched the season finale of Party Down, the half-hour comedy on the Starz cable channel. This may be the series finale, too, since the show has virtually no viewers (given that it’s a critical favourite, it may be that its entire audience consists of critics).

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The show has done quite an amazing job of turning out good, solid episodes given quite a number of limitations that would cripple any other show. For one thing, the budget — it looks like they sneaked a couple of film cameras into somebody’s house every week, and have to finish filming in about five minutes before they get kicked out. (The finale had a scene where a character’s hands are down in one shot, and up on the other guy’s shoulders in the very next shot — this doesn’t bother me, but it’s just an indication that they don’t have much money for retakes.) And because they’re a little show with a tiny budget, they can’t hold cast members: Jane Lynch was a regular in the first season, but left to do Glee — she came back for the finale, which was about her character’s wedding — and the lead, Adam Scott, has already left to do Parks and Recreation.

And finally, though the show is about caterers, it’s really about people who are on the fringes of show business and are working this job until they can fulfil their dreams, plus the successful showbiz figures whose events they cater. It’s a show where successful showbiz figures get to re-live their past struggles, making it the kind of story where the audience is asked to care about a somewhat alien, insular L.A. culture. It’s been compared to Taxi, since both shows are about people working dead-end jobs while clinging to the dream of being something more, but imagine if almost every character on Taxi was Bobby Wheeler, and you’ve got an indication of why this show didn’t take off.

Yet it is a good show. I personally don’t find it very funny, but that’s subjective. It does have sharply defined characters, a willingness to challenge each of them (Scott’s detachment is questioned and shaken up just enough to keep him from being annoying), and an ability to use its low budget to its advantage, interweaving multiple plots within a limited amount of time and number of locations, almost like a play without an audience. The humour depends too heavily for my taste on stuff showbiz insiders find really hilarious, like a celebrity playing himself but acting out of character (Patrick Duffy last night), but again, that’s a personal thing, and many non-insiders find it funny as well. And its willingness to mix some drama in with the comedy, as it did in the scene where Casey (Lizzy Caplan) discovers that she’s lost the movie part she thought she had, is effective and refreshing.

The show does give off a vibe, to me, of being a bit painful. I feel the same way about it that others feel about The Office, which has never depressed me (in either version). I don’t know exactly why, since it’s not particularly despairing as these things go, and tries to include glimmers of hope. It may be the job itself, where the characters are trapped: they have to stand there and take it, or stand there and listen, and their moments of freedom are moments that they grab on the side. If you compare it to Taxi, the dead-end job was one that provides a bit more freedom and independence, and most of the episodes took place when the characters weren’t working anyway. The British Office is more depressing than the U.S. version because the characters on the original have to sit there and take everything the boss dishes out (though they have more avenues of escape), while on the U.S. version they’re much more free to talk back. Maybe the decision to make Party Down literally about the characters on the job — though necessary, probably, for budget reasons if nothing else — is what gets me down, subliminally. Most workplace comedies avoid being depressing because we never see anybody doing much actual work or experiencing boredom.

That also brings up something I’ve noticed about the half-hour cable comedy, which is that it tends to remain rooted in its premise. A broadcast comedy, no matter how high-concept the premise is, usually abandons it in part or altogether about a year into its run. E.g. 30 Rock hasn’t been about a sketch comedy show in years; NewsRadio burned through all its “what happens in a radio station” plots in the first few weeks; and I’m sorry, kids, How I Met Your Mother is just not about how he met their mother. But cable comedies often start with high-concept premises and keep going with them. I mean every week, every season.

Entourage is still a show about show business in a way that no network show-business comedy ever would be after even one season, let alone several. Hung is still about you-know-what. Even Curb Your Enthusiasm has evolved a lot less in its run than Seinfeld did; you can see Seinfeld going from small observational stories to huge, epically wacky stories, while Curb has changed a lot less over seven seasons. And then you have Party Down, which is still about caterers who are trying to break into show business, and seeing them off the job counts as a “gimmick” episode. Whereas a network comedy would probably have started getting rid of that premise, doing more episodes that aren’t about the job, getting the characters into other kinds of adventures, and so on.

I don’t know exactly why cable comedies tend to evolve less radically than broadcast — it’s almost the opposite of the relationship between cable and broadcast in drama. In drama, cable tends to be less formulaic than broadcast. In comedy, cable is much more formula-bound, for better or worse. Maybe it’s just because they do fewer episodes, and whereas drama becomes more formulaic as you do a lot of episodes, comedy tends to get less formulaic the more episodes you do (the writers have to find more types of stories just to fill out the season order).