Here’s the structural genius of “Party Down.” It has the DNA of a workplace comedy in that it brings together people who would never know each other otherwise. But it’s also a hangout comedy in that the waiters work as little as possible. Because each episode takes place at a different party, it avoids the stasis, visual and otherwise, that workplace comedies induce. In just 20-odd minutes, the writers create an entire small world. Then move to the next.
But even as the birthdays, weddings and after parties deliver variety — and the “Sin Say Shun,” “Pepper McMasters Singles Seminar,” “Nick DiCintio’s Orgy Night” and “Joel Munt’s Big Deal Party” episodes deliver the boobs that premium cable somehow finds essential — there’s a tonal sameness to the fetes. Few of them seem like much fun. Mostly they’re an opportunity for the hosts and attendees to reflect on the emptiness of their lives, poolside. So there’s the comfort: Maybe parties were actually bad?
Each week brings a new catastrophe — accidentally-on-purpose burning an American flag, seducing the wrong guest, poisoning Takei. But at the bottom of its highball glass, “Party Down” is a show about the existential problem of whether making an effort is worth it. “No risk, no reward,” Casey chirps in Guttenberg’s Jacuzzi.
“Well, I have a saying,” Henry answers her. “No risk, no risk.”
The series puts forward and then undercuts two irreconcilable ideas: that you should, on the one hand, pursue your dreams, and on the other, live in the moment, being decent to the people around you. Given its barbed view of the entertainment industry and the systems that support it, the show suggests that each is mostly a losing game. Kyle finally lands a major role, and the movie goes straight to DVD. In Asia. Casey books a scene in a Judd Apatow comedy. Then learns that the scene was cut.
But when your job involves serving pigs in blankets purposefully shaped like male genitalia, caring is obviously dumb. And giving up isn’t a good look either. So ultimately, this is a show about the unsettled question of how to live, one appetizer platter at a time.