“Do you know what you get when you hire a Party Down catering team?”
Conventional wisdom would suggest that if you were to begin a Party Down retrospective series with a quotation, you’d go with “Are we having fun yet?” And yet, there’s something about that very first line of the series, that question asked by team leader Ron Donald (Ken Marino) just before we fade in on his smiling face looking right at the camera – “Do you know what you get when you hire a Party Down catering team?”
What do you get when you hire a Party Down catering team? A few things. You get a group of struggling Hollywood artists–writers, actors, comedians–begrudgingly waiting on you and your guests. You get a team leader, ostensibly the most motivated and professional of the bunch, attempting to keep his subordinates focused on the tasks at hand. And you get utter, bleak, miserable chaos. On a good day.
Our Party Down catering team is led by the one and only Ron Donald. He is something of a Michael Scott analogue: completely unaware of how he comes off, full of mundane ambition and self-importance, always saying the wrong thing at the wrong time (more on Party Down’s obvious similarities to The Office in a subsequent entry to this series). His dream is to one day run a Soup’r Crackers franchise (“they have salads, but they’re known for their soup”). Meanwhile, Ron tries his damnedest to keep his team focused on serving customers instead of eating event food and running lines with each other.
The rest of the team consists of aspiring and former entertainers. There’s Constance (Jane Lynch), a retired actress who seems unable to grasp the concept of boundaries. Constance is something of a mentor to Kyle (Ryan Hansen), a would-be actor and model who is just as dense as he is handsome. Kyle spars with Roman (Martin Starr), an aggressively pretentious asshole screenwriter who obsesses over the minutiae of complicated sci-fi narratives.
Rounding out the group is Casey Klein (Lizzy Caplan), a struggling comedienne with a rough domestic life. She clearly would rather be doing anything other than food service, but financial obligations persist. Her disinterest in the general proceedings contribute to her having even less regard for Ron’s authority than most.
The only major change to this status quo as we join the Party Down crew in “Willow Canyon Homeowners Annual Party” is the addition of Henry Pollard (Adam Scott) to the team. Henry is slightly different than the rest of the gang in that he has had his fifteen minutes of fame. The star of a well-known beer commercial, Henry is coming to terms with the fact that he might just be a one-hit-wonder. He is, in essence, giving up. He accepts that acting jobs have stopped coming his way and that his future is in catering, no matter how depressing a thought that might be.
Henry and Ron used to work together, back before Henry “hit it big.” Now Henry is back, working underneath Ron, who he (and most others) sees as a clown. It’s demeaning work, but Henry has resigned himself to the fate of a bartender. No longer will his life be consumed by pointless networking and auditions in service of eventual success in Hollywood. It’s just not worth the disappointment and heartache anymore. Instead, Henry yearns for stability. He wants a house and a family.
These thoughts run through Henry’s mind as he tends bar at the Willow Canyon Homeowners Annual Party, hosted by Gordon and Liddy McSpadden (Enrico Colantoni and Rebecca Creskoff). He covets the McSpadden’s Hollywood home, their suburban lifestyle, their friends, their inane awards ceremony (“The award for Best Mailbox goes to…”). However, over the course of the Homeowners Party, Henry starts to learn that the grass really is always greener on the other side.
Gordon McSpadden, is, for all intents and purposes, a successful guy. He’s made his fortune in estate law; he has a huge house, a loving wife, and all of the luxury he could possibly have dreamed of. Strange, then, that he feels just as unfulfilled as Henry. He chats with Henry at the bar, telling him that he hates doing the same shit day in and day out, wearing pleated shorts, and never acting spontaneously. He poo-poos it when Henry says he’d give anything just to have a house and a “life.” Henry suggests that they switch places. Gordon asks, “Do you know anything about estate law?” Henry shakes his head. “Bummer.”
Later, spurred on by Henry’s falling into the pool, Gordon strips naked and cannonballs into the pool as the fancy-dress party is in full swing. He invites the other guests to jump in, incredibly happy with his own spontaneity and youthful energy, but is met only with the cold-hearted stares of those who are content with the stability of their lives. He looks around and loudly asks, “So I’m the asshole here?”
Yup, Gordon. You’re the asshole here.
“Willow Canyon Homeowners Annual Party” is not just one of the best TV pilots ever produced, not just one of my favorite episodes of television, but the perfect first episode for this series. It captures so much of what Party Down is about–loneliness, the longing for and unattainability of success, depression, resignation, hopelessness, and ultimately, the importance of human connection over monetary success.
“Willow Canyon Homeowners Annual Party” Rating: 9.5/10
Soup’r Crackers Quote Corner
“Put your clothes on, Gordon. No one wants to see your penis.” – Liddy McSpadden on her husband’s naked escapade.
“I don’t want you serving them two jiggers!” – Ron Donald, at the top of his lungs, because the host said no doubles.
“I have too much at stake here. If you tell your mom, I will just…destroy you.” – Ron Donald, to Liddy’s daughter, after she catches him seemingly pleasuring himself in her bathroom.
Ron: “Roman, what am I not hearing?”
Roman: “I dunno…a squid? There are other options, I suppose.”
“Are we having fun yet?”