It’s hard to say why exactly, but everyone is obsessed with telling the true — and often lurid and hilarious — stories of the service industry right now. As evidenced by the popularity of series like The Bear and The White Lotus and horror-comedy film The Menu, we just can’t get enough of the inherent tension that exists between waiters and chefs and patrons, especially when played for comedic effect. And so the long-awaited third season of Party Down, a revival of a 2009 Starz series about a crew of aspiring-actors-cum-dipshit-cater-waiters in Los Angeles, arrives at the perfect time.
Party Down, created by Rob Thomas (not the guy from Matchbox 20, the guy who created Veronica Mars) and Paul Rudd, is one of those cult-favorite shows that never fully lived up to its full potential. Its two biggest stars, Jane Lynch and Adam Scott, went on to bigger roles in Glee and Parks & Recreation, and it never generated great ratings despite almost universal acclaim from critics. But now, when stories about folks serving rich people for crappy tips are having a moment in the spotlight, there’s no show that can do unflinching service industry humor quite like Party Down.
For those who missed the first two seasons — they’re streaming on Hulu, but there’s enough of a catch-up in the first episode for those who want to dive right into Season 3 — here’s a quick rundown: Ron (Ken Marino) is the team leader at a catering company called Party Down, where he works with a bunch of struggling actors including Henry (Scott), Constance (Lynch), Kyle (Ryan Hansen), and Lydia (Megan Mullally), and aspiring writer Roman (Martin Starr). Together, this crew of doofuses ends up in some truly unhinged situations while serving at a wide array of events, from a dinner orgy to an adult film industry awards ceremony.
Set roughly 10 years after the Season 2 finale, the cast reunites just before the COVID pandemic kicks off in earnest in 2020. Kyle, who’s finally scored his star-making turn in a superhero movie, has hired the company to cater an event celebrating his big role. They’re all a little older, a more tired, and more bitter. Roman clearly has spent too much time reading alt-right forums on Reddit. Kyle’s still convinced that Hollywood stardom is in sight even as the superhero role slips through his fingers. Henry’s getting a divorce, Ron’s living in his van and on the verge of losing his business, and Kyle’s accidental Nazi anthem is coming back to haunt him in the midst of his big break. In that way, it feels as if no time has passed, and it’s totally plausible that these folks could still be slinging hors d’oeuvres at happy hour while waiting for the fickle gods of Hollywood to notice them.
Party Down has always felt like an honest depiction of what it’s like to work in the service industry — gratuitous drug use and crass jokes and all — and that darkly funny realism feels especially appropriate In These Times. Newcomers to the crew are Lucy (Zoe Chao), a self-described “food artist” who feels creatively stymied by making boring finger food, and Sackson (Tyrel Jackson Williams), Gen Z’s answer to the original Party Down crew: He’s not an actor, he’s simply trying to go viral on social media. Both bring a heaping dose of youthful ambition and earnestness, perfect foils to the burned-out bitterness of Kyle, Roman, and Henry. Also new is Jennifer Garner’s Evie, a successful film producer that all the actors want to impress — and maybe even date. (Original star Lizzy Caplan was unable to reprise her role as Casey due to scheduling conflicts; the script writes her out by noting Casey is actually famous now.)
While the new season may lack some of the original run’s rawest and most experimental humor, the casual misogyny and homophobic jokes that occasionally appeared back then are not missed at all in these six new episodes. It isn’t necessarily gentler, but Party Down is a show that’s kept up with the times, one that doesn’t have much interest in punching down. It’s a little smarter than the episodes that preceded it, but no less biting and bleak. It confronts issues like the impropriety of blackface and whether or not it’s okay to serve food to Nazis, even if they call themselves “alt-right.” It critiques the wealth divide and explores the therapeutic potential of psychedelic mushrooms. There’s a little gratuitous fan service, but not so much that you feel like an outsider if you don’t have all the original jokes memorized. Season 3 also preserves Party Down’s reputation for great actor cameos. Kevin Hart, Jennifer Coolidge, Steve Guttenberg, even a pre-2016 Stormy Daniels all made appearances in the first two seasons, and appearances from Quinta Brunson, James Marsden, and Nick Offerman this season don’t disappoint.
Party Down excels at assembling a cast of charming characters, in spite of their flaws. You may not want to hang out with Kyle or Roman or Lydia, but you can’t help appreciating the temerity with which they approach the crushing monotony of working low-paying catering gigs while working toward a dream. It feels real, especially if you’ve had a similar job or even watched a season or two of Vanderpump Rules or Below Deck. The characters in Party Down are never heroes and rarely villains, just regular people with bad habits and crazy dreams.
And maybe it’s that thread of deluded confidence — or terminal cluelessness, however you want to look at it — that means you just can’t help but root for the Party Down staff. They’re messy, they drink too much, they make stupid decisions, they hate the grind of their jobs. They’re fuck-ups, but they’re trying. In short, they’re just like us, and that’s why we love them.