Last week, Starz dropped the axe that many of us knew was coming when they canceled Party Down, a brilliant comedy that reached most of its audience through Netflix Instant Watch, which streamed new episodes the day after they aired on Starz. I consoled myself that Party Down could at least live on and gain admirers through it’s presence on Netflix’s streaming service. Then, it was reported today that all 20 episodes of the show will be removed from Netflix tomorrow. Someone who knows more about distribution and business models featuring streaming content will perhaps ask and answer the questions many fans of the show have: What metrics are used to mark viewership on third-party sites like Netflix? Did Starz or Netflix make money off of the deal? Why would Netflix be taking it down only a week after the series cancellation? And what does Martin Starr need to do to make it to 22 episodes on a series?
I can’t offer answers to those questions, but I can highlight one of the show’s most intelligent thematic motifs: the use of theater tropes. The first scene of the first episode is of Ron Donald (Ken Marino) directly addressing the camera, making his pitch as Party Down team leader, ostensibly to the audience but in reality to that week’s party host. It’s a monologue disguised as a soliloquy, laying out the exposition of both the situation and of Ron as a character. Moreover, it establishes an unstable relationship with reality. Though Ron is the only caterer of the crew without Hollywood aspirations, his monologue underlines the “All the world’s a stage” theme of Party Down. While he is putting on a show for his client, the series begins down a path that will develop just how many “shows” are being put on in the world of Party Down. The show doesn’t occur in a “real” world, but instead it’s characters are constantly performing themselves and their Hollywood dreams in the world of theatricality.
In “Investors Dinner,” Constance (Jane Lynch) brings in Baretta‘s prop gun to settle a bet, then right before the act break, the scene from the above clip happens followed by Casey (Lizzy Caplan) saying, “Well you know what they say about a gun in the first act, Ron.” While Casey understands the absurd world she’s living in enough to make a reference to Chekhov’s gun, Kyle response, “What act?” There are varying degrees of self-awareness of the theatrical elements of Party Down, but even Casey doesn’t expect the gun to actually play a dramatic role in the final act of the episode. The party is revealed to be an investment scam, with two con men/actors playing their roles in the presentation and Ron pretending to be a tough action hero because he knows the gun is fake. All of the masks the actors wear are eventually broken in a fittingly theatrical reveal, as if the show suddenly became a dinner-theater whodunit, but with the shyster getting away with it and the “hero” cleaning his own pee off the carpet.
Even formally, there’s a bit of theatrical echoing, as each episode ends with a bonus clip embedded in the closing credits, an encore of sorts. Nowhere is this better used than in the most “theatrical” of all the Party Down episodes: “Not On Your Wife Opening Night.” Geneveive Koski at the A.V. Club mines well how the episode uses the framing device of a community theater after-party to play its own farce, complete with mistaken identities, semi-happy endings, and more couplings (and a mild bacchanalia behind the bar) than comedy superstars in the episode. Throughout the episode, failed screenwriter/scifi novelist Roman (Martin Starr) is plied with wine and praise by pretentious community theater actors. What begins with the actors proclaiming, “In the theater, the writer is God,” proceeds to their creation of him in the form of the God of the Theater, where everything is “magnificent,” complete with laurel leaf and orgy. In the final moments, the credits role, then they cut to the declaration of the theater being saved, to which he declares:
Roman, briefly, buys into the theatricality of his life, taking the reigns as a caterer-turned-Bacchus and declaring, just as his actor-acolytes did, the theater to be “magnificent.”
In Party Down, this level of theatricality does not break nor bend the show’s verisimilitude, fitting well into a world where the absurd expectations of a theatrical world have become normalized. Baretta’s gun has become Chekhov’s gun, and Roman has become Bacchus for a night. These metamorphoses work because the show’s foundation is the stage, one that has been built stronger with each episode. Monologues, acting–conscious for work, schemes, pranks or unconscious for self-preservation in a sad life–mistaken identities, reversals of fortune, and discovery abound with each new party the group caters. “Cole Landry’s Draft Day Party” turns into a melodramatic farce with secrets revealed and a reversal of a reversal of fortunes, and “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday Party” revolves around a script workshop and read-through, with Steve Guttenberg playing a version of himself amped up enough to be read in the fifth (or fiftieth) row.
And like some theater, Party Down will only be accessed and loved by few people. But perhaps that’s part of their struggle.