Skip to main content

tv Party Down’s New Season Says Hustle Culture Is a Scam

14 years later, we’re all still trying to make it work.

Party Down is back, in a brave new world. ,Starz

Alissa Wilkinson covers film and culture for Vox. Alissa is a member of the New York Film Critics Circle and the National Society of Film Critics.

It’s important for the purposes of this article that you know my age: I am on the verge of turning 40. Having been raised in that brief interregnum between the Cold War and the war on terror, I, like many of my peers, assumed that I would live my life in a stable economy and relatively peaceful geopolitical context. I’d go to college, get a job, and then enjoy a gradually increasing salary, benchmarked to a gradually increasing cost of living. Everything would be pretty normal.

Ha! Ha ha ha!

My adult life has been marked by national and global catastrophic events, recessions, and the growing realization that the stability my parents and grandparents had at my age is vanishingly rare. It’s become distressingly clear that the gig jobs my peers and I relied on to make rent in our mid-20s — but assumed we’d ditch, eventually — have evolved into the only jobs, not stopgaps but survival necessities. We are old enough to be the parents of teenagers, but we’re barely better off financially than we were when we were teenagers. And though we were sold a bill of goods about the future belonging to the “creative class,” the truth is that the more creative we are, the worse our economic prospects turn out to be.

This all probably explains why, upon finding out that a new season of Party Down was on the way, I felt a whole range of emotions. Excitement, mostly. Party Down is one of those rare comedy gems that capture life with knife-edged precision. The show premiered in 2009 with a simple concept: we follow a group of caterers in Los Angeles, most of whom are just doing this gig to pay the bills while waiting for their real creative careers (acting, writing, music, comedy) to take off. Every episode takes place at a different party or event that they’re catering. Shenanigans ensue.

“One of the reasons that we all sparked to the idea in the first place is because all of us who originally started talking about it had lived versions of that life,” John Enbom told me over Zoom. Enbom is a Party Down co-creator and writer — alongside Paul Rudd, Rob Thomas, and Dan Etheridge — and he wrote most of the show’s new season, which premiered on Starz in late February. Like many in LA, as well as their characters, Enbom and his colleagues had picked up gig work while waiting for their careers to take off. They knew this world well.

The show ran on Starz for two seasons before being canceled by the network in 2010, in part because stars Jane Lynch and Adam Scott had nabbed new roles elsewhere (Glee and Parks and Recreation, respectively). Lizzy Caplan, Martin Starr, Ken Marino, Ryan Hansen, and Megan Mullally rounded out the regular cast, along with guest stars; Jennifer Coolidge even had a role for a few episodes.

A group of partygoers and caterers stand smiling at a party.

The gang’s all here! Sort of.

If you like this article, please sign up for Snapshot, Portside's daily summary.

(One summary e-mail a day, you can change anytime, and Portside is always free.)


But now it’s returned for a third season, and the characters have aged as much as we have in the meantime. (Want to feel old? The gap between the premieres of seasons two and three of Party Down is about the same as the gap between the release dates of Avatar and Avatar: The Way of Water.)

And that is why, mixed into my excitement for a new season of the pink bow-tied gang and their capers, was a bit of ... how to describe it? Anxiety. Dread. Some undefinable existential sadness. If Party Down was coming back with most of the same cast (save for Caplan, who was unavailable), then chances were some of them were still trapped in a catering gig they hated. And that felt a little too real.

I was right. While not everyone in the new season is still carrying platters of hors d’oeuvres, most of them are. The season premiere finds a few of them — Henry Pollard (Scott), Kyle Bradway (Hansen), and Lydia Dunfree (Mullally) — enjoying some degree of success beyond the gig life. Others, like Roman DeBeers (Starr), have barely budged, bitter as ever. And others, like Constance Carmell (Lynch), have accidentally lucked into the future of their wildest dreams.

Meanwhile, the inexorable Ron Donald (Marino), the show’s resident Sisyphus, remains convinced success is just around the corner. “How he deals with that situation and how he pushes himself to insane limits and suffers and still goes on is something that I love to write,” Enbom said, laughing.

Soon it comes clear that though time has passed, not much has changed, or indeed ever will change for these characters. In some ways, Party Down season three makes clear what the show was always about: that hustle culture is a con, that success owes as much or more to dumb luck as skill and hard work. “We think about Party Down as being so much about how you manage the luck that flows in and out of your life,” Enbom said.

But while the characters haven’t changed, the world they’re in has. Henry was just past 30 in the first two seasons; at 45, with a divorce under his belt, his situation seems a lot more bleak. But now he’s surrounded by younger coworkers who still harbor the hope of building a creative career. It’s just that what that looks like looks different. Sackson (Tyrel Jackson Williams) is a content creator, aspiring to fame through TikTok, and he’s constantly scouting and filming content during the catering gigs. And Lucy (Zoe Chao) takes her work as the group’s chef absurdly seriously, turning out creations that are basically inedible in pursuit of culinary authenticity.

When the creative team sat down to imagine a Party Down circa 2023, “a lot had changed in the world — what success looks like, what dreams might be, what your ambitions could be,” Enbom said. “That landscape has changed enormously and diversified all over the place.” Thanks to social media — and to concepts of “selling out” basically evaporating for Gen Z — “you can basically be doing whatever you’re doing and hustling your hustle anywhere, at any time.”

Adam Scott and Jennifer Garner in Party Down. He is tending bar; she is standing nearby with a drink.

Jennifer Garner is in this season too!


But it was clear this season presented a great opportunity to mirror what a generation was experiencing right now. “This idea that there is a simple arc from here to there, and if you just roll up your sleeves and hustle and grind, you’re going to go from here to there — that has been hugely complicated,” Enbom said, when I asked him what he believed had changed in the world.

Yup. The new season of Party Down does exactly what it needs to do — it’s really, really funny — but it manages to do it while reflecting how much more deranged the world has gotten even since 2009. In one episode, the group ends up inadvertently catering a gig for youthful white nationalists. In another, it becomes clear that the Marvel-ification of the movies has made getting an acting job much harder. And, oh yeah, there’s also that thing that made even catering gigs dry up. “Having the entire world shut down by a global pandemic is a very Party Down thing to happen to you,” Enbom said.

I found, in the end, that there’s a strange comfort to watching this new season of the show. Uncertainty swirls around me, and everyone else, in the real world. Sometimes it feels like my friends and I, people who are far luckier than most of the world, are still mourning the future we thought we’d have and settling into the one we actually were given. Like the characters, we’re just having to find our way. In a sense, the lesson of Party Down is exactly what Enbom says: that luck is going to flow in and out of our lives, largely for reasons beyond our control. The big question in life is what we will do with it.

The third season of Party Down premiered on Starz on February 24; the six-episode season drops weekly on Fridays.


Will you support Vox’s explanatory journalism?

Millions turn to Vox to educate themselves, their family, and their friends about what’s happening in the world around them, and to learn about things that spark their curiosity. Financial contributions from our readers are a critical part of supporting our resource-intensive work and help us keep our journalism free for all. Please consider making a one-time contribution to Vox today.