‘Party Down’ Is Back. Did You R.S.V.P.?

The invitations have been sent, the appetizers plated, the bottles opened. Rows of glasses gleam like baby stars. And somewhere, on the fringes of the celebration, a cater waiter is about to do something very wrong.

This was the template of “Party Down,” a Starz comedy that ran for two 10-episode seasons, debuting in the spring of 2009. Canceled just as critics and niche audiences were beginning to catch on, the show followed the disaffected employees of a mid-tier catering company as they moved from party to party, one per episode, filching booze, seducing guests, snorting coke,  flirting with Nazism and accidentally poisoning George Takei.

The original 20 episodes never included a surprise party. But get your streamers and party blowers ready. Because in a surprise to just about everyone — most likely including the folks at Nielsen, who once awarded the show’s finale a 0.0 rating among 18- to 49-year-olds — “Party Down” is back. A six-episode revival will premiere on Starz on Feb. 24, with new episodes arriving weekly.

Martin Starr, a returning cast member, seemed to genuinely marvel at the development.

“This was the only show I’ve worked on where people came to work when they weren’t working,” he said in a group video call. “It’s crazy that we get to come back and do it again.”

“Truth be told,” his co-star Ken Marino said, “the reason I came back to set when I wasn’t working is I was between homes.”

Starr: “I do remember you were finding places to go to the bathroom that maybe didn’t have your name.”

Marino: “I still do. I’m going to the bathroom right now.”

Is this the same “Party Down” that failed to dominate cable television over a dozen years ago? Mostly. The show’s original creators, John Enbom, Dan Etheridge, Rob Thomas and Paul Rudd, remain, as executive producers, and Enbom oversees a small staff of writers. The party-a-week structure also endures, as does the original cast — with the exception, based on the five episodes provided in advance, of Lizzy Caplan.

In the revival, all of the original main characters (except for Casey, played by Lizzy Caplan, not pictured) are either pulled back into cater waiting or never stopped. Credit…Starz

“All of us, for the entire 13 years since we stopped shooting the show, all we wanted to do is make more ‘Party Down,’” the show’s lead, Adam Scott (“Parks and Recreation,” “Severance”), said in a separate interview last month. “We all would have been there for free.”

But the world has changed in the dozen or so years since the original run was canceled. So have the actors. Unknowns or barely knowns when the show debuted, most have since become household names. (The others? Depends on the household.) And they’ve all seen the current crop of disappointing reboots and reprises. “Party Down” could just be the rare show to get it right, mixing the perfect cocktail of star power, nostalgia, growth and gags.

Then again, the characters never put a lot of muscle into bartending. So here’s a Zen koan for a deeply un-Zen show: Can you throw the same party twice?

Are we having fun yet?

The first run of “Party Down” was both structural marvel and joke spectacular. Each episode was simultaneously a workplace comedy, a hangout comedy and a procedural — a sitcom that never sat down. The celebrations it featured — birthdays, after parties — typically bordered the entertainment industry and nearly all of the cater waiters harbored industry dreams of their own.

Those dreams eluded them, which fueled the philosophical inquiry at the show’s center.

“What we were asking was: How long do you chase the dream?” Thomas, one of the creators, said. “When do you grow up? When do you quit banging your head against the wall?”

The “Party Down” staff are all trying to make it, as actors, screenwriters and comedians. (Marino’s Ron, the manager, has a different dream: a Soup ’R Crackers franchise.) Only Henry (Scott), who has traded beer-commercial celebrity for free-floating despair, has opted out. The actors were trying back then to make it, too. None of the original cast — Caplan, Ryan Hansen, Jane Lynch, Marino, Scott, Starr — were anything like famous when the show began. Acting in a comedy about the entertainment industry’s has-beens, also-rans and never-wills resonated with the cast, sometimes uncomfortably.

“It felt so close to home, this show, because I felt like I could be a caterer the next day easily,” Hansen said.

Scott, who at the time had yet to play a lead, then shared that sense of career tenuousness. The cast felt deeply connected to the show in those first seasons, he said, and protective of it. “We just wanted to do it forever, because it made us feel better,” he said. “It really did.”

“All of us, for the entire 13 years since we stopped shooting the show, all we wanted to do is make more ‘Party Down,’” Scott, fourth from left, said.Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

The salaries, though small, kept a few of the actors on the sunny side of financial precarity. The camaraderie helped, too. (That camaraderie remains; I had four of the actors together on a video call, and I have never heard grown men exchange so many “Love yous.”) Several actors separately compared the original shoot to summer camp.

That genuine affection altered the show’s tone. Some first season episodes included “edgy” humor — gay jokes, post-racial jokes. (“It’s cringey, yeah,” Starr said.) But the creators quickly realized they didn’t need that edge. The show was sadder than that. Funnier, too. The characters are screw-ups, sure, but the show suggests that everyone is a screw-up, especially after an hour at an open bar. So maybe the best thing is to find common cause as you pass the hors d’oeuvres.

“It’s about people who think that they’re going to find happiness in something out there,” Lynch said. “But what they have right in front of them is really quite sweet.”

Lynch shot the first eight episodes. Then she had to leave for the Fox show “Glee.” Marino hired a stripper for her wrap party. The stripper, Lynch recalled, smelled of French fries. The show went on, with Jennifer Coolidge replacing Lynch for two episodes and Megan Mullally, the only actor who was already well-known, coming in for the final 10.

The creators believed that it would keep going, even though, according to Nielsen, the Season 2 finale attracted only 74,000 viewers. Starz had other plans. Those plans didn’t involve letting the creators take the show elsewhere. “Party Down” languished.

One decade, zero dinners

If the original run argued that it’s healthier to let some dreams die, the creators and the cast could never quite manage that. There were talks, every year or so, of getting the crew back together — for a special, for a movie, for a move to another network. Friends and fans often asked Marino about it.

“I was like, ‘They’re working on it,’” he said. “‘It’s going to happen! Right around the corner!’” It took him eight or nine years to accept that maybe that corner wasn’t coming.

Then in 2019, Starz appointed Jeffrey Hirsch as its new president and chief executive. Thomas reached out to Hirsch and began pitching the show again. Hard. This time, Starz said yes.

That was only the first hurdle. The actors had conflicts and prior commitments now. The revival was approved in the summer of 2021, with production scheduled for early 2022. Lynch was to begin rehearsing a Broadway musical. Scott was making the Apple TV+ show “Severance.” Mullally had booked a movie being shot in Idaho.

Somehow a six-week window was found, even though that window involved flying Mullally to Los Angeles every weekend and back to Sun Valley by Monday.

When “Party Down” debuted in 2009, none of the main cast were anything like famous.Credit…Starz
In the new season, the main cast has become more diverse, with the inclusion of two new regulars: Zoë Chao, second from left, and Tyrel Jackson Williams, far right.Credit…Starz

“We could never get together for dinner for a decade,” Etheridge, a creator, said. “But when we came to shoot the show, everybody was there.”

Everybody except for Caplan, who had signed onto the FX series “Fleishman Is in Trouble.” (Asked whether Caplan might make a surprise appearance in Episode 6, Starz declined to comment.) Enbom had originally structured this new season around the on-again-off-again relationship between Henry and Caplan’s Casey. He had to restructure it, adding a new character, a studio executive played by Jennifer Garner. The revival’s first episode takes time out to heckle Caplan: Casey, now a successful comedian, can’t make a crew reunion.

“She’s shooting in New York,” Starr’s Roman, still an aspiring “hard sci-fi” writer, says. “Too big time for the likes of us.”

There were fewer jokes in real life. Hansen tried to make light of the situation. “Listen, we get it,” he said. “She had a job, whatever. I mean, I personally turned down a Marvel movie to do ‘Party Down.’”

“Tell that to everybody,” he added.

But just about everyone described themselves as heartbroken, including Caplan. “If I think about it for too long, I start to cry,” she wrote in an email. She sent cupcakes to the shoot.

The bow tie abides

Hollywood has transformed in the years since “Party Down” first concluded, and in some ways the show has, too. Gratuitous boobs are gone now. And the catering crew, once blindingly white, has become more diverse with the inclusion of two new regulars: Sackson, a YouTube-style content creator played by Tyrel Jackson Williams, and Lucy, a chef played by Zoë Chao who styles herself as a “food artist.”

Yet, the sweet-sour, slightly funky flavor of “Party Down” — like a margarita made with off-brand liquor — is mostly unaltered. This seems to be the rare revival that understands what made the original work, yet can still move (or move just enough to include the occasional TikTok dance challenge) with the times.

“We kept doing what we’d always been doing, just with new details,” Enbom said. “Because society certainly has not changed into a more wholesome place.”

Have the returning characters changed? That depends on how much you and your therapist believe that change is possible. “They’re still the same lovable knuckleheads,” Mullally said. “Most of these people haven’t really moved on, or they haven’t really become any happier, or more fulfilled in their lives.”

Friends and fans often asked Marino, top left, whether the series would be revived. “I was like, They’re working on it!,” he said. “Right around the corner!” It took nearly 13 years.Credit…Chantal Anderson for The New York Times

Slinging hors d’oeuvres hits different and more darkly in midlife. Still, the creators and the cast didn’t want the revival to feel like a bummer.

“It’s going to be fun watching the characters try to claw their way toward something other than their current circumstances,” Scott promised.

And if not exactly “fun,” then certainly relatable. “Really who gets what they want in this life?” Lynch said.

She probably meant that rhetorically. But the “Party Down” die-hards, Lynch included, did get what they wanted, a third season. And they seem to have delighted in making it, though Marino joked that he’d had to slim down before he could fit into his signature pink bow tie.

“Had to work off that neck fat,” he said. “Got my neck nice and lean.”

Slipping on that outfit was a little more stressful for Chao, a newcomer. She had watched the show, years after its debut, while working a food-service survival job herself. “Party Down” had made her feel less alone. She didn’t want to ruin it. “I whispered to myself every day, going onto set, ‘Be the least funny, but by as little as possible,’” she said.

Williams expressed similar gratitude and anxiety. “Everyone was so sweet and welcoming from the very beginning,” he said. “It never felt like an intimidating environment.” And yet, he added, “there was still like this insane fear.”

The returning cast faced related, if less acute, worries. They have been in the business long enough to understand how revivals can go wrong. (A few of them had even appeared in revivals that flopped.) But they were reassured by the scripts, written by Enbom and a small staff, which suggested a continuity of character and tone and food-poisoning-induced body horror. There was also the pleasure of being together again — a little older, a little grayer, but still able to drop a tray on cue.

Will the ratings for this coming season be better? Comfortingly, they can’t get much worse. But the cast and creative team are counting on the show’s turning enough heads that Starz will greenlight a fourth season. (“You better believe I’m not missing that one,” Caplan wrote.)

Though Starr is inclined to cynicism, he sounded only mildly sardonic in discussing this ambition. “I really do hope we’re allowed to come back and do it again and keep up this little charade we’ve got going,” he said.

Hansen put it a bit more pragmatically. “In 12 years, people are going to love Season 3.”

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