Party Down: The Death of a Good Sitcom

TV Features Party Down
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An L.A. catering company run by the city’s second class. An arrogant wannabe writer whose only genre is “hard sci-fi.” A lovely comedian desperately seeking to pry open the Hollywood doors. A failed actor everyone identifies by the lame catch phrase he uttered in an old commercial. A well-meaning dork of a boss who can’t get out of his own way. An aspiring actor with stereotypically good looks and stereotypically bad brains. A divorcée who moved to Los Angeles to seek fame for her teenage daughter Escapade.

As a formula for a television show, the above description totally works for me. The hypothetical formula above revolves around the concept of aspirations. What the great comedy writers understand is that the saddest and funniest part of modern Western society is the compulsion to be famous. Think about it. What makes Tobias Funke and David Brent such great characters? The anxieties and justifications that feed their desires are the stuff of real humanity—more real, anyway, than we typically allow ourselves to be seen. Because this is the age of image. This is a time of projection. So many archetypes and behavioral models are available to us, on television and the internet, that those of us looking to present ourselves can choose our own personal cocktail of fake traits to broadcast to the wider world. But where it all breaks down, where the base desires come out and the mask slips, is the core desire. Fame, recognition and applause are the elements that move us and break us down, and by the percentages, almost none of us get what we want. That, to me, is comedy.

So I was excited to start watching Party Down, the Starz series that first aired in March 2009. But herein lies the problem—I was excited to start watching Party Down a month ago, not in March 2009. And the damn thing was canceled after the second season, which finished in June 2010.

Due to the miracle of Netflix Instant, I was able to watch all 20 episodes within a couple weeks. That’s not the problem. The problem is that I didn’t know about Party Down until recently, and couldn’t do a damn thing about its cancellation. Not that I had the power to make a difference anyway, but still…for me, it was dead before it even began. There’s something depressing about that, as though by watching the show I’m talking to a ghost, hearing its hopes and dreams, and realizing with a shiver that the ghost thinks he’s still alive.

My finger is not exactly on the pulse of the television world, as you may have guessed. I’m one of those cretins who use live television exclusively for sports or the odd political moment, and waits to hear the reaction of critics and trusted friends before I’ll commit to a show. Almost 100 percent of the time, the shows that make the cut will have finished at least one season before I set eyes on it. And then it’s binge time: downloads, Netflix, rentals. I’ll blaze through a season in a week or less, depending on how inactive my life is at that particular moment. Then I’ll wait a year and do it again.

But what I’m starting to realize is that I’m a murderer. I’m a killer of shows. And I’m not the only one—we have a generational genocidal issue here. The people who watch TV consistently, as the episodes air for the first time, are either older or living more predictable lives. These are people who can tolerate commercials. These are people who have their nights free and watch Mike and Molly while they eat seven pizzas at a time.

Okay, now I’m stereotyping. I apologize. Obviously, this can’t be universally true. But we are the computer-based generation, and we’re not quite as conditioned for the routine of gathering around a set at 8pm to spend our nights consuming television. With the success of new shows so tied to ratings, aren’t we kind of screwing the stuff we should like? I mean, how does Arrested Development get canceled? Part of the reason has to be that I, a dude who owns all the dvds and loves Arrested Development, never once saw the show on Fox. I failed the creators.

I won’t lie to you—Party Down is a very good show, but it’s not a great show. It’s not Arrested Development, for instance, or more people would have heard of it. It’s hysterical at times, poignant at others, and always super observant. Each episode is structured around a catering gig, so along with the usual cast (anchored by Adam Scott as Henry Pollard, the commercial actor who gave up…Scott is better known as Park and Recreation’s Ben Wyatt), you get to meet some segment of the L.A. population. Whether that’s a group of college Republicans, wealthy suburban homeowners, or a weird gothic band holding a backstage party, the writers never miss their mark.

And though it may fall just shy of great, there are too few good shows on television. This is a valuable addition. Party Down deserved more than two seasons, but on a channel like Starz (important side note: what the hell is Starz?), in a climate where too many relatively young’uns like myself don’t even watch the shows as they air, it had no chance to succeed in an environment where ratings are the be-all and end-all.

There are too many examples just like this one. Community comes to mind. NBC is currently hanging the show out to dry, and it’s only the smartest, best comedy currently running. I used to wonder how something so good could fail. But my experience at home this past winter sheds some light on the phenomenon. For hopeful reasons I can’t explain, I made the critical mistake of trying to get my parents into the show. A couple episodes were on-demand, so we cued up the bottle episode where Annie loses her pen. Almost immediately, they were not on board. And the crazy thing was, I started seeing Community through their eyes. I was having that horrible experience where you desperately want a third party to like something you think is great, and you sort of analyze their reactions and the art itself as they experience it for the first time. It almost always turns out poorly, and within five minutes, they were done.

And I wondered if maybe I was wrong. Maybe Community isn’t a good show. Maybe something about it had fooled me.

But I wasn’t wrong. It’s brilliant, but it’s designed for an audience that wants to move beyond television tropes and embrace something with a little absurdity, meta-commentary and unpredictability. These are not the hallmarks of network television, and they’re almost indecipherable to an older audience. It doesn’t mean our elders are less sophisticated or that we’re smarter. It just means they don’t understand because they weren’t brought up with our influences. In 30 years, I’m confident that people my age will be watching things that make absolutely no sense to me. They’ll be brilliant, and I’ll sit there feeling confused, longing for GOB and Tobias. That’s the way it works.

What’s changed is that as a generational group, we’re not showing up. We’re not in front of the televisions. The great dramas don’t need us, because they don’t rely on a separate kind of understanding. Stories are stories, from now until forever, and the good ones attract everyone. But the comedies do need our help. Without us, they’re just confusing jumbles of odd humor for an older audience to dismiss.

Still, we can’t be bothered to watch them at anything but our own time and place. We despair when they fail and rant about the bad taste of the mainstream, but at least the mainstream supports its shows. You and I are sleeping in the bed we made.