(Starz) Let's have a moment of silence for Party Down -- the smartly written critical favorite that only lasted two seasons on the Starz network. As with many sharply satirical programs featuring an excellent cast, it received great reviews but didn't have the numbers to stay alive.
This raises some interesting questions. In this day and age, it's not simply about the Nielsen ratings anymore, because we now have DVD, Blu-ray, and streaming syndication. Yet, the people in charge of renewing television shows still seem to use the Nielsens as a heavy indicator of what's going to be a success. Should they? Shows like Family Guy, Futurama, and Arrested Development found new life after being cancelled, due to a groundswell of fan support through DVD sales and rerun ratings. Can the Nielsens predict which shows will achieve this life-after-death? Probably not.
Party Down seems like a show that would inspire such a cult following. It has strong characters, a premise that allows for endless variety, and — most importantly — it's got heart. The good news for fans is that there's a Party Down film in the works which is rumored to feature most of the original cast.
The basic story features a group of out-of-work actors who work at a catering company to pay the bills. The show follows them from party to party and through their personal struggles. Adam Scott (Parks & Recreation, Eastbound & Down) plays Henry, the long-suffering protagonist who has returned to food service after a failed acting career. Lizzy Caplan (True Blood, Freaks & Geeks) is his love interest, Casey. Ken Marino (Children's Hospital, The State) plays his boss; and Ryan Hansen (Veronica Mars, Friends with Benefits), Martin Starr (NTSF:SD:SUV, Freaks & Geeks), and Jane Lynch (Glee, The 40-Year-Old Virgin) round out his team of co-workers.
Henry is a very relatable guy in that his life hasn't turned out the way he planned and he's still trying to figure out what to do about that. His instinct is to give up and accept the adequate life that's been handed him; however, in many ways, he's the lightning rod for the other characters' dreams and aspirations. They see him as a poster-boy for talented people in general, and if he's not willing or able to make it, what hope do they have?
What drives the show isn't the ridiculous gags, although they are hilarious (RON: “What am I not hearing?” ROMAN: “A squid? I don't know, there are other options...”). What drives the show is the way we feel for these people and want them to succeed, despite their boneheaded decisions. They've chosen a very difficult field filled with phonies and bullies, but they all believe in their creative talents deep down. For a show that's billed as a farce, the trials and tribulations of these characters can be pretty heartbreaking to watch.
The romance between Henry and Casey is quite believable, right down to the little awkward moments that plague any genuine relationship. Marino's Ron is such a wide-eyed optimist that you can't help but root for him, especially given his shaky history of drug and alcohol abuse. Starr and Hansen's Roman and Kyle provide the funniest interactions, with their sibling-like torment of each other. Any fan of Freaks & Geeks knows the wonder of Martin Starr's rueful nerdiness, and he's in top form here.
It should be noted that the cancellation of Party Down may have been largely influenced by Jane Lynch leaving for Glee and Adam Scott leaving for Parks & Recreation. However, their decisions to leave were probably in turn influenced by Party Down's low viewer ratings. The discussion that should be prompted by cases like this is one about quality versus ratings.
There are all kinds of reasons why people don't watch shows during their first run. Due to many people's busy schedules, they don't watch network TV and prefer to catch up with shows after the fact. Also, there are so many channels now, and so many shows out there, that it's impossible to know about all of them unless you devote a lot of effort to the enterprise. A great show can easily slip through the cracks if it's not given a chance to prove itself. That's why American networks should take a cue from the BBC and start renewing shows based more on critical reception and overall objective quality. After all, great writing and acting aren't that hard to spot. Just look at Party Down and you'll see them in spades.
For Fans Of: Parks & Recreation, Workaholics, The State, Freaks & Geeks
Why We Like It: Martin Starr, Lizzy Caplan, Strong Characters, Engaging Romance