‘Party Down’ Season 3 Review: Starz’s Cater-Waiter Comedy Returns in Fine, Warmly Nostalgic Form

The great frustration of Party Down failing to find an audience when it aired on Starz in 2009 and 2010 didn’t stem from how good the show was. I’m used to great shows not generating big numbers.

No, what rankled was that if you looked at the ratings for Party Down, you’d get the impression that it was in some way an esoteric show, intended for a niche demographic. The reality was that not only was Party Down packed with already-familiar actors who have only become more familiar and more beloved in the subsequent decade; it was also a really broad, really accessible, often downright zany show. Sure, it was a bit smarter than your average bear and its perspective on Hollywood-adjacent culture was a bit inside-baseball. But it was structured as a reasonably traditional workplace sitcom, one with an endlessly renewable narrative engine that should have set it up for a long run of outlandish parties.

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That’s probably why this little show that often drew under 100,000 viewers in its regular Starz airings — the mind boggles at just how poorly Party Down initially did — accumulated enough new viewers over the years to make a revival plausible. And it’s also probably why the new Starz revival of Party Down is so generally successful. Even if the new episodes — critics have been sent five of six installments — occasionally flag under the effort to replay some of the show’s greatest hits, Party Down returns on generally solid footing, generating some laughs, many smiles and a lot of nostalgic warmth.

Season three of the comedy from John Enbom, Rob Thomas, Dan Etheridge and Paul Rudd picks up 10 years after the finale with a premiere titled “Kyle Bradway is Nitromancer” and which, like that very title, is dedicated to 30 minutes of general catch-up.

Formerly aspiring actor Kyle (Ryan Hansen) has apparently been working steadily and he’s on the verge of his biggest break to date, playing the main character in a potentially lucrative franchise. He has hired the Party Down crew, led by the desperately eager-to-please Ron (Ken Marino), to serve as cater-waiters. The team still includes Martin Starr’s Roman, attitude and love of hard science-fiction intact, but Kyle has invited other members of the gang including Henry (Adam Scott), Lydia (Megan Mullally) and Constance (Jane Lynch) to attend as civilians.

There is a party and there are the usual high-profile guest stars, with James Marsden as a more established actor and Jennifer Garner kicking off a season-long run as a producer, but more than anything it’s the TV equivalent of the Chris Farley celebrity interviewer character. Remember Henry and Casey (Lizzy Caplan, too busy for a return)? Whatever happened to their relationship? Remember Lydia’s daughter with the funny name (Escapade)? Whatever happened to her? Remember Roman’s book and Ron’s various expansion plans? Any progress? And speaking of remembering, will anybody remember that Henry used to be the “Are we having fun yet?” guy?

Everybody has changed a little but nobody has changed a lot, and everything leans into perhaps an even more condensed version of all the characterizations from the original series. Henry, despite having moved on with his life, feels extra forlorn, and the references to “Are we having fun yet?” a decade along feel more forced and more wearying. Kyle has more risible actorly delusions, Roman more surly pretentiousness, and although Constance and Lydia have no reason to be there, they’re themselves, only extra. Had all six episodes of Party Down been as relentlessly backward-looking, I would have gone from tolerant to irked, but as Lydia puts it, “I love this stuff. Reunions. Get-togethers. Catch-ups. Do-agains. I love seeing people from the past and seeing people from the past see other people from the past.”

The episode sets up some of the plot lines for the rest of the season and brings some of the established characters back into the catering fold for reasons that might as well be convincing.

From there, Party Down is Party Down. And why wouldn’t it be? Yes, we had over a year in which people stopped having social events entirely and the social events we have today feel different than they did in pre-COVID times, but that’s all acknowledged in the new episodes. If COVID production protocols mandated that the episodic galas are perhaps less populated than the galas from the first two seasons? It’s all appropriate.

The weekly events aren’t all hilarious — for every “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” or “Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh,” the original series run had two or three episodes that were just generally funny — but a few are. “First Annual PI2A Symposium,” with the group working an alt-right get-together featuring Callum Worthy and Nick Offerman among guest stars, is properly scathing, while an episode built around several characters doing mushrooms left me in stitches.

The overall tone and grammar of the show is totally unchanged, which is unsurprising since Enbom continues to lead the writing team and several key directors are making return engagements. If you like punchlines tied to Quibi or the mechanics of Method acting, those are there. And if you don’t feel like paying attention for the in-jokes, eventually Marino is going to walk into a wall, trip over something or experience an allergy or intestinal distress. Party Down has levels.

The series misses Caplan, but in a role that functions partially as a Casey replacement, Garner blends effortlessly into the ensemble, getting better with each episode and peaking in the mushroom-taking installment. As the new Party Down head chef, Zoë Chao replaces a lot of Caplan’s droll energy. Tyrel Jackson Williams, as a new waiter with a popular TikTok dancing profile, will be a loose-limbed revelation to anybody who didn’t watch his equally excellent work on the equally underwatched Brockmire. I would hope that a fourth season would realize that Mullally and Lynch, while obviously capable of much mirth in this venue, aren’t necessary for the series overall, giving more time to Chao and Williams.

Generally, I would hope that a fourth season would continue the process of progressing the show organically and expanding the world — more than half of these episodes are Party Down veterans hiring Party Down for their own parties — instead of pursuing niche-y insularity. But even more generally than that, I hope the accumulated audience since the show was originally canceled comes out for these new episodes, and that we get a fourth season at all.

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