Pop Culture

How ‘Party Down’ Came Back From the Dead for a Season 3

Adam Scott and Jennifer Garner star in the Party Down revival.

Adam Scott and Jennifer Garner star in the Party Down revival.Courtesy of Colleen Hayes via Starz.
Thirteen years after the super cult comedy series about aspiring-actors-turned-dejected-caterers got canceled, it scored an unlikely callback for more episodes.

In the spring of 2007, writer and producer Rob Thomas (Veronica Mars) turned his newly-remodeled house into a television set. After a couple of unsuccessful years shopping around a script for their comedy series Party Down, he and collaborators John Enbom and Dan Etheridge decided to shoot a pilot episode by themselves. Maybe then, they figured, a cable network would finally grasp their vision for a show about a group of uninspired cater-waiters slinging hors d’oeuvres at various Hollywood-adjacent functions as they pursued their dreams within the entertainment industry.

Thanks to a scheduling quirk, Thomas was able to utilize his Veronica Mars crew “so it didn’t feel like we had some low-rent college film department,” he says. Soon, his bedroom began functioning as a makeshift hair and makeup studio, and with a small cast that included Adam Scott, Jane Lynch, and Ryan Hansen, the low-cost group set up shop in Thomas’s freshly-sodded backyard to begin a week-long shoot, which “felt like a community theater play,” star Ryan Hansen recalls. As Embom better describes: “It was uniquely summer camp, except with a group of total pros. Everybody got into the spirit of it and dug in.”

It took 18 months—at which point most of the cast had assumed the gambit failed—but Starz finally stepped up and ordered the show to series.  Debuting in May of 2009, Party Down ran for two 10-episode seasons, tracking a mediocre catering company, its spineless manager (Ken Marino) and a motley crew of aspiring and has-been actors that mixed cocktails, dressed cheese plates, shirked duties, and caused mild chaos, with each episode tracking a different party (i.e. the “Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen,” the “Pepper McMasters Singles Seminar”). Though the series deployed pitch-perfect cringe humor and earned strong critical reception, ratings quickly flatlined and it was promptly canceled. “The writing was on the wall,” Scott says now. “It was tough because we all loved making it together so much.”

But this week, after earning beloved cult status thanks to a second wind on streaming, Party Down gets a rare callback. With the exception of Lizzy Caplan (who had scheduling conflicts), the entire cast—which also includes Megan Mulally and Martin Starr—is back for a six-episode revival, eager to don their signature pink bow ties and make good on a long-gestating campaign to reunite as everyone’s favorite cater-waiters. “Because of the way the show left open-ended, it really left itself available for more seasons,” Starr says. “It’s one of the easiest shows to say ‘Yes’ to.”

In an era of reboots, sequels and expanding IP with diminishing returns, how will this iteration stack up? Thomas, Enbom, Etheridge and Paul Rudd remain as executive producers, and the show’s party-per-episode format and dream-chasing themes persist in Season 3, proving the endurance of its chemistry, crass jokes and overarching existential questions. After a long hibernation, the makers of Party Down are confident they’ve kept the show’s roots—and the party—alive. “We’re very nostalgic for the show ourselves, but we didn’t just want to do a nostalgia event and move on,” Enbom says. “We wanted to keep the show going.”

Ryan Hansen, Zoe Chao, Martin Starr, Adam Scott and Tyrel Jackson Williams in the new Party Down revival.Courtesy of Colleen Hayes for Starz

The heart of Party Downs comedy lies in apathy. Outside of Ron (Marino), the company’s anxious team leader looking to make an impact in the food service industry, nobody on the staff wants to serve appetizers or pour cheap wine at banquet halls and suburban fundraisers. It’s simply a last resort, a paycheck. “Los Angeles is made up of chasing dreams and doing shit in the meantime,” says Hansen, who plays Kyle, a delusional, struggling actor and musician. “You’ve got to do the shit until it hits.”

Thomas first thought about mining comedy from workplace malaise after watching the British version of The Office. At the end of the first scene, in which manager David Brent hires a forklift operator, he was struck by how a show could so easily transcend the well-trodden mold of punchy set-ups and jokes. “My jaw was on the floor,” Thomas says. “It was comedy in a way I had never envisioned. I felt like I had seen the future of TV.” It wasn’t long before he was hosting watch parties with Enbom, Etheridge and Rudd each week, getting high on weed and the potential for a similar kind of melancholic comedy. “We fell in love with the rhythm of it,” Thomas says. “We thought, we should do something like this.”

At first, the pitch process seemed easy. Thanks to Rudd’s star power, HBO executives were eager to develop the group’s proposal into what they thought would be another inside-Hollywood hit. Instead, when the group turned in the first episode’s script about a Sherman Oaks neighborhood homeowner’s association potluck—“about as far away from Hollywood as you could be, and still be in Los Angeles,” Thomas says—they balked at the idea. After shooting their own pilot, the producing team faced more rejection—from Showtime (“The executive there said, ‘I love this, I have no idea how I would market this,’” Thomas recalls to Comedy Central (“They did not get the show,” he says. “Somebody was already validating our parking mid-pitch”).

“It was just that waiting game of finding a connection,” Enbom says, “which is always interminable if it doesn’t happen right away.”

Enter Starz, which had been looking to expand its comedy lineup and liked the party-per-week structure. By then, Rudd had moved onto movie stardom, but a cast of barely-knowns (prior to Glee, Lynch was the most recognizable name) worked well for a series with a severely limited budget and featured an insecure staff discussing casting calls in granite kitchens. “We could afford cubes of cheese to put on trays. That was kind of the catering,” Enbom says. “I was mostly anxious that angry caterers would rip the show apart for its inauthenticity.” Outside of industry specifics, however, nobody could deny the camaraderie on set. “We all gelled so much and spent time around each other,” Hansen says. “That’s kind of rare.”

At the time, Scott was still looking for his breakthrough. Which is why, like the majority of the cast, he related strongly to his character Henry, the show’s protagonist who is haunted by his teenage beer commercial celebrity past and has all but given up on his acting goals after years of rejections and nothing-parts. “I think all of us who played these roles really connected and felt deeply what these people were talking about and what they were going through,” Scott says. “When you’re in the middle of it and going from lily pad to lily pad, just trying to piecemeal a career, you don’t realize that you’re walking on a tightrope made of dental floss.”

Over its 20 episodes, the Party Down crew wrestles with universal sisyphean slog of work and rejection—and whether it’s beneficial to channel optimism or cynicism in the midst of adorning sliders for a Sweet 16 boat party. Perhaps the culmination of that struggle takes place midway through Season 2 at Steve Guttenberg’s birthday, in which the actor invites the catering team to his home and helps re-enact a screenplay that Starr’s Roman, a hard-sci-fi enthusiast, is struggling to write. For the first time, Henry shows off his acting chops, hinting at a talent waiting to be discovered. “A big part of the show is about the superficiality of what drives some people,” Starr says. “[Henry] is more grounded. He wants success but he wants it for a different reason, in a different way.”

Though the showrunners were primed for a third run of episodes, Nielsen reported that the second season’s finale had only garnered an astonishingly low 74,000 viewers. Lynch had already exited near the end of the first season, and once Scott eventually opted to take a role in Parks and Recreation, the rest of the cast soon learned Starz was ready to move on, too. “It wasn’t like the show had momentum,” Hansen says. “It was just such a huge bummer because we all loved it so much and knew we had something special.”

Adam Scott, Lizzy Caplan, Megan Mullally, Ken Marino and Martin Starr in Party Down.Courtesy of Colleen Hayes for Starz via Everett Collection

In the wake of its cancellation, Thomas retreated to the corners of the internet where Party Down fans had mostly congregated. “I could go onto YouTube and see clips of Party Down in the comments and feel the love for the show,” he says. “And I could feel that picking up every year.” Though a movie project was floated early on, Enbom couldn’t determine a way to translate the episodic nature of the series; still, the producers kept pestering Starz to find a solution. “Every couple years we would check in with them: ‘You want to make more episodes? Can we make them elsewhere?’” Enbom says. “And the answer was always ‘No.’”

Then, a regime change. In 2019, Starz named Jeffrey Hirsch president and chief executive, just a couple months before the producers and cast would reconvene at Vulture Festival for a retrospective panel. “That was integral in this whole process,” Starr says. “I remember we were like, ‘OK, let’s get together and show them we love each other to see if we can get the support again.’” After years of viewers discovering the show on Hulu, and cast members addressing reunion rumors in every interview they gave, Thomas eventually pitched Hirsch a new season at lunch. Without much convincing, “things happened pretty quickly,” he says, and Enbom started writing.

Though Enbom had originally centered the new season around Henry and Casey’s (Caplan) on-and-off relationship, he pivoted when Caplan couldn’t work around her shooting schedule. Instead, Season 3 adds a few different characters—namely, Evie (Jennifer Garner), as Henry’s new love interest, along with Saxon (Tyler Jackson Williams), a viral online video star, and Lucy (Zoë Chao), an experimental chef uninterested in heating up pigs in a blanket. More than a dozen years later, the show’s budget has at least expanded the types of food it passes around. “We were always interested in and excited about actually bringing in new caterers, because that’s the rhythm of catering,” Enbom says. “The younger generation [has] different takes on what this whole arc of success actually means in a new landscape.”

Enbom also found creative ways to reestablish his now mid-life group’s rapport, incorporating some helpful throughlines—and the same philosophical quandaries—within a modern world. How did Ron manage through the pandemic? Are there any consequences for Kyle’s Nazi-esque wedding song? Is TikTok the new way to build a brand when you’re stuck plating fruit? The answers avoid some of the earlier run’s thornier, outdated jokes even as the cast’s predictably goofy scenarios push the envelope. “There’s some stuff in Season 1 and Season 2 that we wouldn’t do today—we’re all a little smarter and a little better,” Hansen says. “But it still has that edginess.”

At this point, reprising old shows and rebooting classic movies has become part of the pop cultural fabric—but that doesn’t mean it isn’t risky. Scott, who also serves as a producer, understands the inclination to be wary of resuscitating and potentially ruining “perfect little things” from the past, but he never hesitated when Starz gave everyone the green light. “People feel close to it and feel ownership over it. Which is part of the specialness of it,” Scott says. “It’s really nice because [originally] we didn’t think anyone would ever see it and didn’t care.”

But people do care, and Starz is betting on its return, promoting new subscriptions with Party Down imagery and clips while executives chart the numbers and ponder a potential fourth season. It’s quite a 180 from the pitch rejections Thomas experienced two decades earlier—and a fitting lesson for the characters themselves. If you wait long enough, and don’t give up, you might find a version of success you never imagined. “That’s the funny and depressing part of chasing your dreams,” Hansen says. “I think that’s what resonates.”

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