Photo: Starz
A Very Special EpisodeA single television episode can exemplify the spirit of its time. A Very Special Episode presents The A.V. Club’s survey of TV at its most distinctive.  

The possessors of beauty are reticent about their privileges or act as though it was luck that the cop didn’t give them a ticket, that it was just a ‘nice man’ who let them through customs without having to wait in line. Beauty, unlike money, seems unable to focus on the source of the power.” -Eve Babitz, Eve’s Hollywood

In May 2009, at the end of the first season of the Starz sitcom Party Down, co-creators John Enbom and Rob Thomas talked to The New Jersey Star-Ledger’s TV columnist Alan Sepinwall about what they’d learned while making ten half-hour episodes of a show almost nobody watched, on a cable channel that even some subscribers didn’t know they had. At one point, Sepinwall—rightly assuming that the dinky handful of Party Down fans would be interested in arcane process questions—asked about the way the series toyed with expectations when it came to the characters of Roman DeBeers (played by Martin Starr), an obnoxious aspiring screenwriter and science-fiction snob, and Kyle Bradway (Ryan Hansen), a dim-but-handsome and ultimately good-hearted star-to-be.

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Thomas’ description of that dynamic helps explain what made this simple little comedy about success-starved Hollywood cater-waiters so special. “It’s the attempt that we consciously make, wanting to tip some storytelling devices on their heads,” he said. “Kyle is harmless and self-absorbed, and the tragedy of the rest of the crew is that he’s the one likely to make it, but he’s not a bad guy.”

For a corollary to that statement, watch Party Down’s second episode, “California College Conservative Union Caucus.” In it, the nearly universally left-leaning Party Down Catering crew is stuck schlepping apps at an event hosted by a local university’s Young Republicans club, in honor of then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger. “The Governator” never shows as promised, but over the course of the evening, the servers exercise their political convictions, and find them flabby. They discover that Republicans can be kind, that they themselves are hamstrung by their own prejudices, and that they would shit-can any or all of their ideals in a second for a chance even to get close to power and fame.

Well, all but one of them would, that is.

Backing up just a bit: Party Down stars Adam Scott as Henry Pollard, an actor who earned a big payday and briefly became famous across the country for appearing in a beer commercial, spouting the catch-phrase, “Are we having fun yet?” When his career stalls, Henry returns to Party Down, insisting that he’s done with the business. Besides the writer Roman and actor/model/singer Kyle, the crew is filled out by struggling comedian Casey Klein (Lizzy Caplan), opinionated and soulful veteran actress Constance Carnell (Jane Lynch), and—in season two—clueless stage mother Lydia Dunfree (Megan Mullally). They’re all supervised by Ron Donald (Ken Marino), a middle-aged late bloomer trying to put his slacker youth behind him in order to make enough money to buy a franchise for an all-you-can-eat soup restaurant.

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The ingeniousness of Party Down was that its premise and structure—which had the caterers working a different event for nearly every episode—allowed Thomas and Enbom to drop the characters into a wide variety of Hollywood subcultures, all populated by people more rich and accomplished. (Enbom explained to Sepinwall that he and Thomas came up with that concept because it was “easily pitchable.”) They hired a cast of regulars and guest stars who were familiar both with California culture and character-driven comedy. In an interview with Den Of Geek years after the series was cancelled, Starr described it as one of the most fulfilling creative experiences he’s had as an actor, and one of the most supportive. “We’d all be playing around and having fun and pitching jokes, more so for other people than for ourselves. It was a very unified group and everybody was very intently looking out for each other. There was no ego in the comedy of it all, it was all fun, trying to find laughs for each other as much for ourselves.”

But it was the late addition of Scott—filling in for Enbom and Thomas’ first choice, Paul Rudd—that solidified what Party Down was really about. Because Scott went from playing the charmingly down-to-Earth Henry on Party Down to playing the sweetly geeky Ben Wyatt in Parks And Recreation, it’s easy to forget that for about the first 15 years of his career, he had a type: “obnoxiously snide douche-bro.” (For the best iteration of this, see the hilariously hyperbolic 2004 action picture Torque… a future cult movie, if it ever gets rediscovered.) Enbom told Sepinwall, “I’ve known him as kind of a nice, likable guy who has this slightly under the radar sardonic sense of humor… I was actually kind of amused to find out that [douchebaggery] was his bread and butter.”

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That ability to see beneath the surface would become one of the hallmarks of Party Down, embodied by the “live and let live” attitude of Henry. Like Judd Hirsch’s Alex Rieger in Taxi, Scott’s Henry in Party Down is the great abstainer, pulling himself out of the rat race—at least temporarily—and becoming a neutral observer of both its winners and losers. His self-awareness in “California College Conservative Union Caucus” is most evident in a scene where he’s serving up virgin Manhattans (“It’s called a Rudy Giuliani”) and virgin Old-Fashioneds to a couple of clean-cut students, Greg and Dennis, played by Jason Dohring and Ryan Pinkston. Henry makes a couple of wise-ass remarks, and when his customers look stung, he immediately apologizes. “I’m a liberal,” he says. “It’s not your problem.”

It’s not that Thomas and Enbom (the episode’s credited co-writers) were suggesting that Hollywood liberals are mean-spirited hypocrites, or that campus Republicans are secretly sweethearts. It’s more that in the world of Party Down, everyone’s at least a little bit delusional about what they stand for, and why they’re in the positions they’re in. Immediately after Henry’s apology, Greg and Dennis try to inspire him with platitudes and anecdotes. They start behaving like missionaries for self-determination, arrogantly assuming that unlike the people holding the trays and carrying their food, they’re living examples of perseverance just because they admire other people who overcame difficulties, such as one-handed MLB pitcher Jim Abbot and wheelchair-bound Democratic Senator Max Cleland. (“I disagree with his politics.” “But he didn’t quit.”)

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Like a lot of Party Downs, “California College Conservative Union Caucus” is essentially a briskly paced, tightly packed, escalating farce, where conflicts and complications are introduced early and inevitably explode by the end. In this case, the go-getter Ron finds himself repeatedly on the wrong side of the man who hired Party Down: the caucus’s irritable underdog third-in-command, Jeffrey (Josh Gad). Determined to prove that he deserves to be the group’s leader—and thus to prove himself to his father, a man who says that the world is divided into “achievers and fuck-ups”—Jeffrey tasks Ron with helping him deliver to Schwarzenegger an engraved briefcase filled with imported cigars and a battle-worn American flag. By the end of the night, thanks to a series of mishaps involving BBQ sauce, bleach, and a stolen replacement flag, Ron will end up burning the stars-and-stripes right in front of an audience of gobsmacked Republicans.

In the midst of all the mayhem, Enbom and Thomas find time for plenty of the small character moments and funny lines that make Party Down such an easily re-watchable “hangout show.” When Henry spikes one of the booze-less cocktails for himself, Casey cracks, “You could least make it a mixtape before you take its virginity.” When Kyle ribs Roman for the stupidity of his screenplay Terror Bird, he asks Constance for an opinion about how big of a bird would scare her, and she falls back on years of improv-trained “yes, and”-ing to say, “I can’t think straight now, and that’s a good question.” When Jeffrey warns Ron that Schwarzenegger’s running late and that they’ll need to hold the buffet, Ken Marino wrings every bit of comic potential out of Ron’s urgent instance that they’ll “pace the appetizers.”

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Ultimately though, “California College Conservative Union Caucus” is all about a special guest who never arrives, and conflicts that never come to fruition. The biggest subplot has to do with Constance’s irritation over a fairly benign gay joke she overhears, which Kyle intends to turn into a grandstanding public shaming—until he finds out that the guy who told the joke is also gay. When a defensive Constance pivots to criticizing any small sign of bigotry she can see at the event, Ron drags her to the prep area and says, “Constance, I respect your voice as a woman. Now stay back here with the food and don’t talk.”

The keen insight Party Down had into Hollywood didn’t get praised enough when the show was on the air—perhaps because almost nobody watched the show during its initial run. (Scott once said that only 16,000 people watched the series finale in June of 2010; TV By The Numbers had it as 74,000.) Perhaps through hard personal experience, Enbom and Thomas and their writers, directors, and actors always understood how much of show business and politics is performative, not substantive. Projecting the right attitude is more impressive to some folks than following though on convictions. (That’s how the TV and movie industry can get away with mouthing off about sexism and racism on talk shows and award shows, while still treating women and people of color as an afterthought when it’s time to hire talent.)

In “California College Conservative Union Caucus,” the caucus itself is seen getting hung up on questions about whether the word “together” should be part of their motto (“Sounds kind of socialist!”) or whether it’s appropriate to give Schwarzenegger Cuban cigars (“It’s a free-market issue!”)… but ultimately all of these arguments are self-serving. Everyone’s behaving the way they’d be inclined to behave anyway, then retroactively insisting on some kind of righteousness. Greg’s fiancée Heather (Alona Tal) makes this case most persuasively when she yells at him for taking a job in Washington without asking her, after using “family values” earlier as a reason why she couldn’t pursue her career.

The Party Down crew doesn’t escape evisceration either. Ron tries to balance progressive tolerance toward his employees with his own urgent entrepreneurial ambition, as one-by-one this episode reveals almost everyone of every political persuasion to be shallow and short-sighted. Roman thinks conservatives are assholes but loves that at least they’re carnivores, so that he can snack all day on the ribs they ordered. Jeffrey is made to look like something of a tool when he says that life breaks down to “simple formula” of working hard and then succeeding, but Constance is really no less naive when she tells Henry not to abandon his aspirations because “dreams are our life force.”

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What Party Down grasped about the Hollywood was that there’s little distinction between the servants and who they serve, aside from money and self-perception. It’s a common fallacy among the mega-successful to assume they’ve made it only because they’re smarter and savvier than the competition, and not because of any dumb luck or inherent advantages. Throughout “California College Conservative Union Caucus,” the characters are surrounded by posters meant to declare the caucus’s ideals, emblazoned with slogans like, “I’m a conservative because… I believe in the strength of common people.” That’s a joke about Republican values, yes. But don’t kid yourself: It’s aimed at Hollywood liberals, too.

Next time… on A Very Special Episode: The Carol Burnett Show, “Show #006”