Friday, August 30, 2013

Week 14 of "My 25 Favourite Episodes of TV"

As you'll see in the actual post itself, it turned out to be a really happy accident that I was able to time my Rob Thomas double bill for these last two weeks. God, was I happy to revisit this week's show, but perhaps not as ecstatic as I am for next week. But anyway, I'm getting ahead of myself. If you've never heard of this one, and you have the means, I highly recommend picking it up.

After the break: "Tower of Terror" is kind of a shitty movie but I really, really enjoy watching it.

Party Down, "Steve Guttenberg's Birthday"
First aired on Starz Friday, May 21, 2010

“Fuckin’ hate Steve Guttenberg.” – Kyle Bradway

I saw “The World’s End” this week, the final film in Simon Pegg and Edgar Wright’s so-called “Cornetto trilogy” (along with 2004’s “Shaun of the Dead” and 2006’s “Hot Fuzz”). In the movie, Pegg plays Gary King, an alcoholic, near middle-aged loser who reunites his boyhood friends to make an attempt at “The Golden Mile,” drinking a pint of beer at each of twelve pubs in a continuous stretch of their hometown of Newton Haven. The twelfth and final stop of the mile is the titular “World’s End” pub, which Gary and his friends have never made it to with all five “musketeers” conscious. But the thing is, Gary is really the only one of the guys who actually cares about completing this “Golden Mile”. His four friends moved to the big city, started families, and developed successful careers, while Gary feverishly chased the greatest night of his life – the boys’ last attempt at “The Golden Mile” in the early 90s. But the guys decide to indulge him, recognizing how badly Gary wants – needs – to finally complete the mile. He needs a new “it’ll never get any better than this” moment worse than just about anybody. As he tells his best friend Andy towards the end of the film, making it to “The World’s End” might not mean much to any of them, but it’s all he’s got left.

For the most part, I enjoyed the movie with only one significant reservation: it wasn’t very funny, and it certainly wasn’t consistently funny. “The World’s End” had some interesting things to say about getting older (or perhaps getting less young) and the dream-smashing reality some people are shocked to find themselves in far too late, but I barely laughed at any of it. This despite the film being branded as a comedy, and coming from the aforementioned Pegg and Wright, whose previous two “Cornetto” films did make me laugh and who were also responsible for “Spaced,” one of my all time favourite sitcoms.

The next day, I sat down to rewatch “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday,” a fantastically hilarious episode of the late, great Starz comedy “Party Down” about a group of wannabe actors and writers working as cater-waiters until Hollywood gives them their big break. And to my surprise and delight, I ended up getting the funny version of “The World’s End” I lamented in the previous paragraph.

Before that, let’s discuss the man of the (half) hour itself. Turning Steve Guttenberg into a guy who’s actually really awesome was a very funny idea from the “Party Down” team, but one that made me say “What took so long for someone to do this?” It wouldn’t have felt particularly inspired to me, or on that next level of comedy and storytelling, had the writers not used Lydia (a character who was never really funny and constantly needed distractions) as the audience surrogate for Guttenberg to walk through his vast collection of art and talk through all the exotic locales he’s visited and the incredible people he’s met. You get the sense of how perfectly he’s mastered the art of pretentious bullshit and it lays the groundwork for how trusting all the other characters are of his seemingly messianic wisdom, all of them quickly forgetting he’s just that guy from “Three Men and a Baby”. It’s another example of Rob Thomas’ care that I spent so many words on in last week’s write-up.

Henry would most likely have risen above fare like “Three Men and a Baby,” as Casey discovers when she finds a DVD of one of his few old movies at Guttenberg’s house. Unfortunately, Henry’s only claim to fame is being forced to parrot the catchphrase (“Are we having fun yet?!”) he made famous in a beer ad earlier in the decade. Actor turned ironic punchline Guttenberg, whose birthday the Party Down team was scheduled to cater before his friends threw him a surprise party two days earlier and forgot to cancel, repeats a mantra throughout the episode: “No risk, no reward,” a brilliantly simple bit of bullshit that all the other characters treat as a legitimately brilliant piece of gospel. Henry’s own motto is “No risk, no risk” – he’s faced rejection enough times to find unsettling comfort in the idea that if he doesn’t try, at least he’ll stop failing. Guttenberg later has a conversation with Henry that pretty much sums up “Party Down” as a series, where he tells him “nine times out of ten, if you’ve got the talent, you break through,” and when Henry asks “But what about that one guy?” Guttenberg quickly distracts everyone with drinks and appetizers.

Henry has almost nothing left, having long ago turned down a chance at stardom for refusing to be part one trick pony, part corporate shill. And something inside of him still really wants to breakout as a legitimate actor and prove wrong all the people who told him he was crazy for trying to hold on to his dignity, regardless of how much he tries to ignore his past or pretend he doesn’t care that people only recognize him from inquiring as to their fun quotient. He tries to tell Casey that while he might be a good actor, he’s just as good a team leader and that’s what he wants to focus on.

Casey doesn’t buy it for a second, and neither do we, especially after we all collectively watch the Party Down crew act out Roman’s horrible “hard science fiction” screenplay. At first they’re all simply reading the lines, but at the insistence of heroic mentor Steve Guttenberg, the reading becomes an all out performance. Henry gets to act his heart out and he does it so well that when he screams a line like, “Oh what do you know about life?!” to Colette, the young aspiring actress playing an emotionless robot in the scene, you can feel him actually saying it to her and not the character. Colette might seem worldly to her completely unread acting classmate Kyle (Ryan Hansen, a.k.a. Mr. Dick Casablancas, one of a number of casting overlaps between “Party Down” and Rob Thomas’ last show “Veronica Mars”), but being so young, taking acting classes at all, and dreaming of making it in the talking pictures must make her the target of such unfair resentment from Henry. He’s been there before and was much less of a hot girl than Colette was, and it can be understandably frustrating for him to perceive her as coasting comfortably on a similar trajectory that he had to claw every step of his way through.

But for at least five minutes, Henry’s the star. He proved his doubters wrong, even if the only people who get to realize it are his co-workers who have failed just as miserably as he has, or who aren’t even as talented as he is. Unfortunately it aligns perfectly with Henry’s “no risk, no risk” philosophy – Henry doesn’t get any actual credit for impressing his friends, and unless he’s prepared to take that back to a casting director, he won’t actually see any payoff for it.

Both mantras kind of simultaneously work for “Party Down”. Most weeks, it was content with being just a very funny show about a catering company getting intertwined with their outrageous clients (a very similar episode to “Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” but with less emotional power was season one’s “Celebrate Ricky Sargulesh,” in which Party Down realizes the party they are catering for a Russian mobster is celebrating Ricky’s acquittal for murder charges – there’s even a reading of a movie screenplay, which Roman realizes is Ricky’s fictionalization of how he actually killed someone), but in episodes like this one, the pain and despair of show business can really drive story in a way that doesn’t feel clich├ęd or obvious. Casey’s arc for almost the entire second season traces her getting a small part in a Judd Apatow movie, which she hopes will finally get her noticed as a comedian, only to find out in the series finale that her scenes have been cut from the final edit. It’s heartbreaking in the context of how big a deal this is for Casey or anyone else on the Party Down team, who would kill for even a potential stepping stone that big. When the show stays lighthearted and goofy in the capable hands of Thomas and John Enbom, it feels “no risk, no risk” on a comedic level, and sometimes that’s more than fine. But it’s when “Party Down” is at its darkest and when its characters are at their lowest points that it takes its biggest risks and rewards us with something really special.

Sigh. I probably don’t want you back in movie form, but I miss you, “Party Down”. Even in the second viewing, I can’t remember the last time I laughed as hard as I did at Steve Guttenberg asking, “Are science fiction and heart mutually exclusive? One word answer: ‘Cocoon’.” Or maybe it was Henry, in character as the space captain, telling Colette’s robot “I didn’t realize ‘worrying’ was in your programming”. Funny television program, this was.

Next week: All* the dogfighting you can handle! *Disclaimer: percentage of dogfighting featured in next week's episode may not accurately reflect the previous sentence.