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04.21.10

Is the Party Over?

Starz's comedy Party Down—loved by critics and a cult audience in its first season—starts Season 2 Friday. But with network comedies poaching its actors, does it stand a chance?

John Enbom doesn't want his Starz comedy series Party Down—which returns Friday for its second season—to be known as a cult comedy.

"We would love to expand at least a tiny bit beyond cult," said Enbom, between sips of café con leche at Silver Lake hot spot LA Mill last week. "I think our lives probably depend on it."

The fate of Party Down, which Enbom co-created with fellow executive producers Rob Thomas, Dan Etheridge, and Paul Rudd, is very up in the air at the moment. Featuring an ensemble cast that includes Adam Scott, Ken Marino, Megan Mullally, Martin Starr, Kyle Hansen, and Lizzy Caplan, critical darling Party Down revolves around a group of cater-waiters in Los Angeles, each of whom is either dreaming of stardom or has come crashing down to reality.

“The cast is already splintering off,” said Adam Scott. “So we’re hoping that people watch and that the response is good and they keep it alive. Otherwise, the cast will keep falling away.”

Even though the single-camera comedy has yet to launch Season 2, the question on everyone's minds is whether the show will continue for a third season, as Party Down—hailed as "the funniest of [a] new breed of shows" by The Chicago Tribune's Maureen Ryan and named one of the Programs of the Year by the American Film Institute—might end up being undone by the very low-cost business model that enabled it to be made in the first place.

The show is awaiting news of a pickup from Starz's recently installed President/CEO Chris Albrecht, who wants to wait to see the ratings for Season 2 before committing to another season. While there's nothing unusual about a network maintaining a wait-and-see position, Party Down is in the unusual situation of losing its cast in the meantime.

One of Party Down's greatest strengths is the winning chemistry among its cast members. But the show's shoestring budget means that the ensemble cast isn't under contract. Series lynchpin Adam Scott recently accepted a role on NBC's Parks and Recreation, following in the footsteps of Jane Lynch, who departed the show during its first season and now stars as Sue Sylvester on Fox's Glee.

"We've known both seasons that this could happen," said Enbom. "One of the only ways we're able to get actors to work in this style, for this amount of money, is basically to say you go in for one go around, and then we'll just see next time. The pluses and minuses of that model are it makes it very flexible… but at the same time, it also means the actors can take other offers. We don't own them."

While one actor is hard enough to replace, recent weeks have brought additional concern as Lizzy Caplan and Ryan Hansen have each accepted roles on network comedy pilots, leaving the ensemble of Party Down seriously depleted should it be renewed. And Albrecht is also putting into effect his own vision for Starz internally, firing Bill Hamm, the executive who developed Party Down (as well as the network's breakout hit Spartacus), and bringing in a new development team.

"The cast is already splintering off," said Adam Scott, speaking to The Daily Beast by phone last month. "Hopefully, they'll pick it up before they lose anyone else… So we're hoping that people watch and that the response is good and they keep it alive. Otherwise, the cast will keep falling away."

Should Party Down be renewed, Scott will be able to appear in three installments, per his deal with NBC. "All I'm allowed to do is three episodes if it gets renewed," said Scott. "I'd love to do it. I want to do as much as I can."

In the meantime, said Scott, Season 2 of Party Down explores the fact that change is often inevitable, even if it proves to be short-lived.

"The interesting thing about the season is that no matter how different it is at the beginning you find out that people really don't change at all," said Scott, whose sarcastic slacker character segues into a managerial role this season. "We all slowly but surely start taking our old positions."

But Party Down has to permanently change, at least with its ratings. One of Party Down's champions at Starz was former EVP of creative development, Bill Hamm, who helped develop the comedy with Rob Markovich and who was let go on Monday. Speaking to The Daily Beast before he was fired, Hamm said that Party Down had to pull up its numbers to earn a shot at a third season.

"If we can see some numbers growth versus Season 1, we definitely are up for it and Chris [Albrecht] is game," said Hamm. "The truth is it needs to just improve over what it did last year, which was in the 700,000 range... Potential is what they key thing is. It is one of my favorite shows. I just wish more people were watching it."

Creatively, Enbom says that the flexibility of Party Down's concept allows for new characters. Former Will & Grace star Megan Mullally joined the cast for Season 2, playing waiter/stage mom Lydia. Mullally's seamless integration proves the show can successfully introduce new characters to the group, but can Party Down survive without most of the familiar faces that populate the cast now, particularly Scott's Henry Pollard, the center of the show?

"What drew us to the idea in the first place was this group of people who all had lives elsewhere but this is what they did all day," Enbom said. "So there was on paper an endlessly revolving door. With Adam, we really put a lot of the soul of the show into his character… We'd certainly have to do some deep thinking about how we shift the perspective of [ Party Down]. We're up to the challenge of doing that, but that doesn't really cushion the blow of losing Adam."

While Party Down may not have cemented Starz's brand, it did put the premium cable channel on a lot more people's radars. Today, however, the comedy seems a little out of place at a network that, following the success of Spartacus, has placed an emphasis on shows with swordplay, with international co-productions like Camelot and Pillars of the Earth now in the pipeline.

"I'm not sure that their foray into original content has been around long enough for them to feel like they would convincingly say this is the Starz brand," said Enbom. "You could have an amusing time drawing a line between Spartacus and Party Down and finding a brand in there."

"A regime change is always a tricky time for previously existing shows, especially when the network is as new as Starz is in terms of doing their own content," Enbom continued. "Obviously, they're doing whatever kind of network soul-searching they're doing right now, and we're just waiting for the smoke to come out of the Vatican."

(Albrecht wouldn't comment for this story. A request to speak with Albrecht about Party Down and its place within Starz's brand resulted in a conversation with Hamm, who was let go from his position a few days later.)

Despite the uncertainty swirling around Party Down's future, Enbom and Scott were both quick to point to the creative freedom that Starz offers.

"You didn't have the usual pressures you have with a big, powerful established studio who has a brand, who has all their own ideas about they want a show to be," said Enbom. "There was nothing that you could ever call a creative struggle for the soul of the show."

Scott agreed. "Certainly, being on a pay cable station allows us a certain freedom with language and nudity," he said. "But I think also with Starz, they're a very young network as far as original programming, and the kind of trust and freedom we get with Starz is really unique. It's a young, scrappy network; we're a young, scrappy show."

There is a still hope that Party Down will grow past its cult status, thanks to the recent release of Season 1 on DVD, and the availability of the show on Netflix's Starz Play streaming service.

"The first season, it took me a long time before I really met anybody who wasn't a good friend or a relation of mine who was aware of the show," said Enbom. "I do think we've managed to break through a little bit. I would be thrilled if we could start getting reviews that don't use the formulation of 'the best show you've never seen.' I'd love to change that into the best show you have seen."

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Jace Lacob is the writer/editor of Televisionary, a website devoted to television news, criticism, and interviews. Jace resides in Los Angeles. He is a contributor to several entertainment websites and can be found on Twitter and Facebook.