The "Party Down" cater waiters are back, but has the now-famous cast outgrown the pink bow ties?

Before they were big, Adam Scott, Jane Lynch and Ken Marino made this comedy. Now that we know them, we expect more

By Melanie McFarland

Senior Critic

Published February 23, 2023 3:00PM (EST)

Party Down (Starz)
Party Down (Starz)

In many ways Starz's "Party Down" was both ahead of its time and is attuned to ours. Between its original run in 2009 and 2010, this spartan and nimble comedy about a catering team was one of those superb shows nobody was watching except for the critics singing its praises. Alas, greatness was not enough to keep it alive beyond two seasons.  

Thirteen years and a thriving streaming afterlife bring it back to Starz with much of the classic gang, only now they're in the 40s and beyond, and left a good deal more haggard by the pandemic. Some have fared well. Some are barely holding on. Lizzy Caplan's Casey Klein scored fame's golden ticket, meaning her Los Angeles catering company days are miles behind her. (Caplan's production schedule for "Fleishman Is in Trouble" prevented her from joining this revival.)

Meanwhile Casey's former hookup partner Henry Pollard (Adam Scott) is a humble teacher who peaked with a national beer spot that has forever associated him the catchphrase, "Are we having fun yet?" As a client who recognizes him and hears about his messy divorce points out, the answer is a firm no.

Party DownParty Down (Starz)

It's impressive that "Party Down" creators John Enbom, Dan Etheridge, "Veronica Mars" creator Rob Thomas and Paul Rudd were able to assemble as many of the original pink bowtie crew as they have. 

Scott came to "Party Down" before he landed "Parks and Recreation"; now he's the lead in one of the best dramas on TV, "Severance." If anything, his success makes failure hang off Henry's shoulders with a glaring shapelessness.

The catering service's boss Ron Donald (Ken Marino) is doing worse despite climbing into a better position. He still lacks managerial acumen, and a place to live that isn't his van, but compensates for that with willpower and determination to take Party Down to the next level. Together they personify the show's long-running philosophical argument over whether pie-in-the-sky aspiration makes sense in a town where simply getting by is enough of a struggle, and truly making it can be next to impossible.

Adding Tyrel Jackson Williams as rising social media influencer Sackson and Zoë Chao as Lucy Dang, a chef who prioritizes artistry over her food tasting good, injects a new tension into the familiar chaos accompanying the ensemble on every job.

Party DownParty Down (Starz)

Williams is as enjoyable as he was in the early seasons of "Brockmire" where he plays a similar if more battened-down Gen Z promotional savant. Sackson understands the Internet content game in ways his mature colleagues don't but lacks the wisdom life provides by kicking a person in the teeth a few times. Lucy's originality is infrequently unappreciated, which she's fine with, except when the boss demands she cranks out miserably basic pigs-in-a-blanket. 

With her part in this show, Chao adds another triumph to her list of series and movies where she's a main highlight. Her casting and Williams' also rectifies the overwhelming whiteness of the original cast by adding two dynamic figures providing other missions to chase than past glory.

Otherwise, the squad is where we expect them to be. Ryan Hansen's puddle-deep Kyle has landed a role in a middling superhero flick. Jane Lynch's Constance is blowing through the fortune she married in the second season finale. Constance has much in common with Megan Mullally's Lydia, who found success as her daughter Escapade's momager.

Meanwhile Roman, Martin Starr's deadpan "hard sci-fi" writer, is still slinging appetizer trays while pondering how to crack his magnum opus.

The dark joke running through the first two seasons of "Party Down" is that that the servers' terrible work ethic is only half the problem. If these folks are doing the least, it could be because the events they're working are irredeemably weird or joyless, or their hosts are horrid.

Party DownParty Down (Starz)

Whether they're slinging drinks at a porn awards after-party (where, of all people, Stormy Daniels is a guest star), fulfilling their obligation to fete a murderer, or hanging out with other wealthy people, the Party Down workers are rarely left with the impression that success brings happiness.

Revisiting them in middle age only sharpens that suspicion, whetting it against the contradictory pondering of whether letting go of our dreams truly serves us. 

Everyone comes to Hollywood believing they'll be stars, and as this staff can attest, very few ascend. Fewer counter that sobering truth with a confident, "So what?" 

Maybe "Party Down" is this season's deep-fried mac n' cheese ball.

As anyone who fell in love with "Party Down" long ago can tell you, its tenor captures all the frustrations and fears of the day job. That part feels the same while jibing with our time of quiet quitting, the gig economy's takeover and late-stage pandemic trepidation. Ron shifted his Soup 'R Crackers hustle into making Party Down the town's go-to caterers, and he was so close . . . at the start of 2020.

His desperate resurrection reflects a feeling looming over all of us, but it also makes a person wonder what a return to the "Party Down" of yore, albeit with a few updates, adds to a TV landscape that's already heavily capitalizing on backward gazing.

Party DownParty Down (Starz)

The show's balance of sardonic humor and sincerity remains intact, and the ensemble's chemistry still sparks. Yet it's tough to shake the suspicion that its laughs are artificially augmented by the star power it now wields. Honestly, isn't it great to see Scott, Lynch, Mullally and Marino knocking around again? Sure. Why not.

For some it may be enough that these vibrant personalities still mix as smoothly as one of Henry's umbrella drinks, and to appreciate how well they meld with a guest star roster that includes Jennifer Garner, Quinta Brunson, and Mullally's husband Nick Offerman.

Want great food writing and recipes? Subscribe to Salon Food's newsletter, The Bite.

An even distribution of writing ensures that no single performance gets short shrift, calling attention to how well-oiled of a comedy machine this cast is. That also gives the script a by-the-numbers certainty that keeps these new episodes firmly in the realm of sweet if not unmissable. 

Maybe that's fine. Maybe "Party Down" is this season's deep-fried mac n' cheese ball, a crowd-pleaser that doesn't ask much of us and hides a little calcium in all that delectable fat. 

Still, it's also reasonable to wish these new adventures with old friends endeavored to achieve something more than a safe trust fall into our embrace. Reliable TV reunions are satisfying, but even messy Ron knows that winning repeat business takes offering something extraordinary.

"Party Down" premeires Friday, Feb. 24 at 9 p.m. on Starz.

By Melanie McFarland

Melanie McFarland is Salon's award-winning senior culture critic. Follow her on Twitter: @McTelevision

MORE FROM Melanie McFarland