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‘Party Down’ and the Appeal of Failure
The reason this cult show has grown such a following is simple: We all relate to the frustrated dreams of its characters.
I was a latecomer to the Party Down universe. I completely missed the show in its initial run, which isn’t my fault, since Starz treated the show like a mistake it was vaguely ashamed of. Sometimes you watch a show and you imagine that some executive woke up under a pile of hookers, coke powder crusted in their nostrils, and they wondered what in the world they were thinking when they signed that particular deal, so they decided to just bury it. Party Down was that show.
I caught it a long time after its initial run, and really enjoyed it, in the way you enjoy pop culture moments you somehow missed and now appreciate like an anthropologist from the future. Which we all basically are. No one expected there to be a third season of this show, certainly. And yet, there is! Which is fascinating, because Party Down isn’t exactly revolutionary. It’s a pretty standard sitcom about a low-rent catering service in Los Angeles, staffed primarily by frustrated actors and middle-aged losers. Their gigs go hilariously awry, but the show’s main attraction in the first two seasons was probably Adam Scott’s amazing hair and pitch-perfect air of weary sarcasm. Everything else about the show is pretty standard stuff—well-done, mind you, but not exactly groundbreaking.
So why did Party Down get a third season a decade after the first two, despite being the cultiest of cult shows? Aside from possible inside baseball, I think there’s one good reason: Literally everyone can relate to this show.
Failure, I Am You
Workplace comedies always follow the same fundamental formula: Take a bunch of weirdos, at least one Straight Man, and mix them together at a job. Most of the time the job in question is pretty dull and low-rent, because exciting, glamorous jobs are not as inherently funny. Yes, you can make being a secret agent or a wealthy fund manager hilarious, but it takes more work. If you set your comedy at, say, the Department of Transportation (or a paper company, or a public school) you have a lot of built-in funny stuff.
Plus, then you can populate your show with middle-class folks that everyone can relate to, since all Americans apparently think they’re middle-class, somehow. This all tracks: One reason The Office has stood the test of time is the fact that so many of us still have to trudge into an office to do stuff we’d rather not do while morons monitor our every move and our workplace relationships get complicated. It’s relatable. Plus, the familiarity most of us have with workplaces means the humor is universal. We understand the jokes, because we’ve lived them.
But even on a show like The Office, the people have a certain amount of success. Sure, Jim and Dwight and Stanley might not be millionaires, but they make a living, own property, start families. They have at least some of the hallmarks of a successful life in this capitalist paradise. And that’s where Party Down makes its move, because it’s one of those rare shows that doesn’t wallow in middle class crapulence. All the characters on Party Down are either failures or weirdo success stories who stumbled into money or fame totally by chance. The bulk of the characters are failures—failed actors, failed writers, failed small businesspeople. These are people who almost literally have nothing, who are hanging on to the economic ladder by a thread. And in case you haven’t been paying attention, that’s exactly what a lot of people are experiencing in this country right now. Party Down might as well have been written for today’s economy.
The Desperation’s Gone
That’s the thing about other workplace shows—they tend towards the stable. The jobs depicted might be soul-killing, but having a full-time job with benefits is still better than working part-time at a catering company because your dreams stubbornly refuse to come true. That’s what makes Party Down so compelling: These folks all have huge artistic ambitions that have simply never come close to fruition. They’re struggling, and as a man who worked in an office for nearly 20 years while trying to push an enormous boulder called My Writing Career up the mountain, that’s very relatable.
The show leans into this, too. The characters drive shitty cars and worry about every knock and ping, because a car repair bill would literally ruin their lives. They endlessly chase auditions in the hopes of leaving their shitty jobs behind. Most importantly, they talk about their failures and their frustrations, just like regular folks do. In a lot of ways it’s the most relatable show on television.
Even in the one area of traditional sitcom stuff where Party Down is pretty traditional—the romantic angle—it’s relatable. The first two seasons of the show played around with the idea that Henry (Scott) and Casey (Lizzy Kaplan) might wind up as an official Jim-and-Pam-style couple. As season three debuts, it’s revealed that Casey has actually gone off to become something of a success, landing a gig on Saturday Night Live. It might seem like a surprisingly optimistic character beat for the show, but in reality it’s putting to rest the idealism and optimism of other shows—because those workplace romances do not always work out. They don’t always end in adorable weddings or passionate speeches and dynamite kisses. Sometimes they just ... fade away. You change jobs, you lose touch, and you spend your time wondering if you fucked it all up.
That, I think, is why Party Down is back. It’s a show that makes the shared experience of miserably failing in a job you don’t even want hilarious. It’s something that almost everyone can relate to.
You could base a situation comedy on my own work experience, of course. But it would be more of a oh yes quite droll-style comedy and less of a omfg-that’s-hilarious kind of comedy. And then it would segue without warning into the saddest thing you’ve ever seen. Excuse me, I have to go weep quietly somewhere.
Next week: More thoughts on The Last of Us because why not.
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When I was a wee lad I imagined I was an edgy Cool Dude. Life has stripped me of those comforting illusions, however, and now I understand that by the time I find about some bit of cool pop culture it is way, way over.
Someone someday will write a treatise on Adam Scott’s hair, and it will be glorious.
<raises finger and opens mouth to express objection, thinks better of it, says nothing>
See footnote 2. Oops, not you’re trapped in a footnote time loop. Sorry about that.
Especially if you’ve ever been forced to wear clothing you didn’t really want to wear <looks daggers at The Duchess>
For some reason this is also the approach taken by most Hiring Managers at real-life companies.
“Baby Levon Rocks On at The DOT” (originally appeared in The Inner Swine Volume 4, Issue 1, 1998)
The fucking New York City Police towed my car the day after Christmas and I traveled to 38th street and 12th avenue to pay $150.00 to get it back. I wasn't happy to be paying $150.00, but I wasn't in full-postal mode because it was just after Christmas and I was resigned to the perpetual screwing the universe was handing out to me on a daily basis anyway. Once you get resigned to the screwing, as any prison bitch will tell you, it really stops bothering you. That's pretty much the definition of resigned anyway.
So I wandered into the tiny, unwindowed, bunker-like DOT office on December 26th and immediately read and comprehended a big 3X6 poster on the opposite wall which explained the proper way to collect your car. It read:
1. REMOVE PANTS
2. BEND OVER AND PLACE PALMS FLAT AGAINST WALL
3. WHEN WE ARE SATISFIED WE WILL LET YOU KNOW
4. BE POLITE! IMPOLITE BASTARDS WILL BE CHASTISED WITH MORE SCREWING.
This seemed pretty straightforward to me, and I removed my pants immediately. I'm used to going pantsless anyway. There were little outlines of hands on the wall, showing you where to put your hands so you'd be in the proper position to handle the stress and general wear-and-tear of a DOT screwing. I waited patiently for my turn.
One guy however, had obviously not woken up to the sad fact of his general powerlessness in the universe. He'd been at a far window (where the supervisor sat in what appeared to be a gilded throne, eating wings from an endless bucket of fried chicken) arguing when I'd walked in, and was ordered back against the wall for the aforementioned MORE SCREWING as I took my own position. He wasn't happy about this. He started making trouble, trying to cut in line and limit his own screwing as much as possible. When the Black guys at the front of the line told him to take it like a man like the rest of us, words were exchanged, but nothing I didn't see or hear at work every day so I wasn't alarmed even as voices were raised.
And then, this woman wearing what appeared to be a dead cat on her head strolled into the office with her two teenage sons and immediately began to hyperventilate.
"Oh my gawd!" she screeched in what I usually assume is a Brooklyn accent even though I am always wrong, "Let's not start a race war in he-yah! I don't want to get shot!"
This did not sit well with the Black men, who knew pretty well who she thought might be packing heat in this scenario (hint: it wasn't me) and didn't like the implications of that bit of stereotyping. Her two sons dropped dead of embarrassment right there, on the spot, and I must admit I spent the rest of this adventure partially curious as to how long the DOT was going to leave two dead bodies in the middle of the floor.
Now, I thought that the big 3X6 poster with its simple instructions was pretty clear, but this lady had become disoriented and tried to cut in line as well to get her screwing right away. The workers behind their hopefully bullet-proof windows rolled their eyes and feigned seizures and pretended to not speak English and claimed not to even work there and basically tried every trick in the book to make this madwoman take her place and await her screwing like the rest of us, but she would have none of it. The first guy, the guy who still hadn't accepted the DOT as his personal higher power and started in on the twelve steps to getting your wheels back, saw a partner in madness and they started preaching to each other:
GUY: What a great city this is!
GUY: It's like Nazi Germany!
LADY: YOU TELL IT, BROTHER!
The rest of us, afraid to move for fear of getting MORE SCREWING and of being noticed by these nutjobs (whose sight, like the T-Rex, is based on movement), glanced at each other as bravely as you can when your pants are down around your ankles and prayed silently for the hell to be over.
A few seconds later, the guy started singing "America the Beautiful" while the lady asked us all if we were in the USA or communist Russia, which had, as everyone knew, re-located to the New York City DOT under the gleeful care of Mayor Rudy. The answer obvious, the brownshirts emerged from little rat tunnels in the walls and dragged them, screaming, into the rank inner-levels of the DOT.
The rest of us breathed sighs of relief, relief which lasted about three seconds, at which time we all remembered where we were, and that we each had MORE SCREWING to look forward to.
I am a temporarily embarrassed thousandaire, myself.
The thought that some people might look at me and think, ah, yes, Jeff is winning this game called Capitalism is disturbing. And hilarious.
Is “Weirdo Success Story” the title of my memoir? I certainly hope so.
Unlike a few years ago, when we were all standing around in tuxedos complaining about the market. Heck, when I was 24 I distinctly remember drinking Coors Lite because I was broke and that was a dark time, kids.
Less well-known is my struggle to be a rock star. The problem, as far as I can tell, is my complete inability to wear leather pants. Also, all these cats.
Also: Bridgerton, because of the aforementioned embarrassed thousandaire stuff.
As a rule, I am anti-idealism and optimism. I’m gonna die someday. What’s to be optimistic about?
Here’s my wisdom: Yes, you fucked it up. Every time. Always.