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GRAB YOUR DESTINY BY THE BALLS
Party Down (2009-2023)
SOMEWHERE BETWEEN HOLLYWOOD THE city and Hollywood the dream, there is the limbo realm of Party Down, a comedy that ran on Starz from 2009-2010, and which was resurrected earlier this year. The show follows Adam Scott as Henry, a former actor who rejoins his old catering company, Party Down, only to be haunted by the beer commercial catchphrase that once bought him a BMW.But the same dream that has so betrayed Henry still propels his coworkers: the pretty boy striver (Ryan Hansen), the prickly screenwriter (Martin Starr), the cheery has-been (Jane Lynch), the cheerier stage mom (Megan Mullally), and the hustling comedian (Lizzy Caplan) with whom Henry shares some on-the-clock hanky-panky, one of the few things that seems to make his job, and life, borderline tolerable. Only Ron the team leader (a gleefully groveling Ken Marino) has aspirations outside The Industry. And Ron’s dream is to run a soup restaurant.
In this world, catering trades the deadening sameness of cubicle life for a movable dysfunctional workplace, one that supplies an endless variety of humiliations. Over the course of twenty episodes, Party Down caters to boors, creeps, snobs, mobsters, hucksters, and psychopaths. Each character is harassed, cheated, and demeaned (sometimes by their own coworkers) because those are acceptable things in the world of the show, meaning the real world of labor in the 21st century. For everyone but Henry, the indignities are dues to be paid, tolls on the highway to fame, details to be inserted into a future backstory of rewarded hustle and meteoric success.
The new season arrives in an era of reboots, revivals, sequels, ‘legacyquels,’ and alternate universes, all of which happen in the Party Down world (Kyle lands a role in a Lost Boys reboot, only to discover he’s playing a dad). There is a hilarious horror in seeing those same faces over all those pink bow ties, everyone older, heavier, exhausted. But the show is never uniformly brutal, and all the female characters have excelled. It’s the guys who trudge forward into the post-Trump world: grind culture, covid, open fascism, the box-office triumph of superheroes. Henry’s opioid problems don't look quite so funny in 2023. Roman's incel leanings look, somehow, even worse.
IN SEVERANCE, THE APPLE TV+ show that serves as an obvious companion piece to Party Down, Adam Scott plays Mark, an office drone of the immediate future. Mark’s company, Lumon, has, with his consent, surgically split his perceptual chronologies, separating his consciousness between work life and personal life. His coworkers have each undergone this procedure, and their work personas know nothing of their real life beyond their own first name. Severancetakes ‘don't talk to your coworkers about your paycheck’ and extends it out to its logical conclusion: coworkers incapable of discussing anything outside the office. There are no customers to contend with, but also no HR rep to complain to. The only tree they ever see is in the wellness room.
Severance is more explicitly dystopian than Party Down.And yet Henry the caterer is just as trapped as Mark the office drone. When Henry attempts to escape to a different job, he gets offered a telemarketing gig paying $10 an hour ($14 an hour in today’s money, less than California minimum wage and far, far below an actual living wage). Mark choses surgical sellout as a way to help him deal with his wife’s death; we’ve seen Henry work multiple shifts with a broken heart. And where Party Down is clearly grounded in the world we all inhabit, Severance dabbles in a lot of maddeningly vague cult stuff (the ‘break’ in breakroom refers to broken spirits). I suppose the point is that there's not much difference between corporate office jargon and Scientology-style hive guidance. But why sever employees only to have them solve seemingly meaningless puzzles?
The “mysterious and important” work of Severance seems to rely on intuition, so maybe their jobs are at least AI-proof.But the world they inhabit isn’t. Several times, the story turns on a video one of the characters is made to watch with no suspicion that it could be a deepfake. Party Down storylines won’t fare any better. In S3:E2, Sackson, a hustling influencer, wants to film a surreptitious dance video for TikTok in a rich client’s spacious bathroom. In the very near future, he wouldn’t need the fancy bathroom; it could be recreated with a few voice prompts. The characters of Party Down occupy the front lines of job disruptions by AI. The foundation of Hollywood the Dream is marked for destruction. The battle for its future is being waged as I type this, on the WGA picket lines in L.A. and NYC.
IN ITS SCREWY AND stylish force, Severance sometimes reminds me of 1967’s The Prisoner. In that show, a British secret agent—the natty, steely Patrick McGoohan—found himself imprisoned in a village full of weirdos (a giant bouncy ball keeps him from escaping; it’s scarier than it sounds). McGoohan had already made a name for himself in a previous TV show, Danger Man, playing a nearly identical secret agent. Unconfirmed fan theories made the two characters one and the same.
What if Adam Scott pulled a Patrick McGoohan? Mark Scout and Henry Pollard were both history teachers. And you get the feeling that under all of Mark’s grief and unease, he could be the same wry guy who once introduced himself to his pretty new coworker (as Henry once did) as ‘Scrotum Phillips.’ What if they actually were the same person? The Lumon gig certainly doesn’t seem to pay anything commensurate with its demands. Maybe Mark / Henry has to moonlight as a caterer because his mysterious corporate gig simply doesn’t pay enough to cover his expenses. Sure, a few details would need to be rearranged, some locales altered. AI will make quick work of that.
Henry peaked long before Party Down starts. In the original series, his car was more battered, the last trophy of a lost acting career. In the original pilot script, we first meet him in this car, trapped in traffic. When an Emergency Broadcast test plays on the radio, Henry stares into space, then turns the volume up. This scene always defined his character for me, even though I’ve only read it, not watched it. Soon, with AI, I’ll have the option of inserting that scene into the old show.
“Breakroom sucks” echoes a joke from Your Pretty Face Is Going To Hell, the ultimate workplace horror series and a closer comparison to Severance than Party Down. Your Pretty Face is set in the bowels of a literal Christian hell—another open-plan workplace with no exit—and their breakroom is a man-sized shredder.
The technology in Severance is (mostly) retro in a way I suspect we’ll see more and more often. It’s too hard to predict future tech at this point. Things change too quickly now. Better to go with the cool tech styles of yesteryear. Even the intro (silky, squishy CGI by the masterful Oliver Latta) looks slightly dated, cutting edge for mid-Trump era; old-fashioned by Biden times. This striking animation comes with its own corporate meta-punch line: a box asking, for a full ten seconds, if the viewer wants to SKIP INTRO.
This came true while I was writing this piece. Luma AI now sells an app that allows anyone with a smart phone to create their own fully immersive 3D scans (Neural Radiance Field—NeRF—is the term for this, one you’ll be hearing more of). Two episodes further on, Sackson livestreams his own drug trip, something that can now be automated. Heygen.com allows users to deepfake their own likeness and voice. This avatar can be “stacked” with syllabi.io which creates unlimited scripts. Influencers of the future will be able to fully automate their social media. What will that even look like?