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PRE-REVIEW: Party Down, “Jackal Onassis Backstage Party” (2.01)

Party Down Season 2 CastCast: Martin Starr as Roman, Ryan Hansen as Kyle, Lizzy Caplan as Casey, Adam Scott as Henry, Megan Mullally as Lydia and Ken Marino as Ron.

Last year, one of the quiet frontrunners for best new comedy, if only to the critics who got a chance to see it, was Party Down, a comedy with Veronica Mars creator Rob Thomas among its stable of creators. The show came from a cable network who was still building a reputation as a place for original series, Starz, whose stable now includes Crash, Spartacus: Blood and Sand and the upcoming Gravity. Starz would largely be looking to Party Down to set a tone, being an early step into original programming, and indeed it set up Starz as a place where a quirky and understated comedy could develop.

My early exposure to the show was, at most, “Alan Sepinwall likes it, so it must be good.” And after pushing through the first few episodes (because these characters are only truly hilarious once you’ve gotten to know them), I devoured the entire 10-episode first season in less than a week.

So, when I got my hands on the opening episode ahead of its April 23 airdate, nothing could stop be from watching. My (almost spoiler-free) thoughts on “Jackal Onassis Backstage Party”, written by John Embom (story by Embom, Rob Thomas and Dan Etheridge) and directed by Bryan Gordon, after the cut…

When last season left off, our intrepid hero Henry had been offered the position of team leader and propositioned by Uda Bengt (Kristen Bell), while two members of the group found small successes outside of the Party Down crew: team leader Ron finally achieved his dream of owning a Soup’r Crackers, while Casey got a chance at actual comedian work, leaving for a job on a cruise. Constance had exited the crew, leaving roommate Bobbie St. Brown (Jennifer Coolidge) in her place. And as the new season starts, we’re confronted with the new reality:

Party Down 2x01, "Jackal Onassis Backstage Party"

Months later, Henry is now the boss of the group, and despite being a much more effective boss than Ron, is still struggling to corral the slackers he’s surrounded with. The crew’s changed; Constance, Casey and Ron are still gone, and Bobbie has followed them, replaced by Megan Mullally‘s Lydia and Danny Woodburn‘s Tim (above, with Henry), who doesn’t last long.

What you really want to know about this premiere is: is it good? Is it as good as the strong closing episodes from season one? Simply put, it is indeed. The episode doesn’t hit the heights of last season’s “Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen” or “Celebrate Rick Sargulesh”, but it definitely sets up the new status quo with some very funny moments  – and those looking for an episode to compete with those season one highs will be very happy with this season’s second episode, so it isn’t a long wait.

The episode is full of callbacks to the pilot without outright ripping it off, including a thematic return to an offer Enrico Colantoni‘s character made to Henry last year, foiled then only by Henry’s lack of expertise in estate law. This time, the same offer is made to Roman by a guest, to great comedic effect.

The dynamic of the group, with Henry as leader, is different but much the same; Henry cares more about things getting done, but the gang still doesn’t care much. Henry’s dry humour shifts well from the guy who doesn’t care to the guy who has to, and his mild acceptance of his co-workers’ quirks has become a quiet frustration. The episode also introduces Lydia, an outgoing single mother and stage mom (“Salad, study the Hannah Montanas and then bed!” she tells her daughter via the phone) who fits right into the team.

All-in-all, anyone who enjoyed season one will appreciate the episode, and anyone joining the audience for the first time will easily be able to follow along.

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