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Spoiler Alert Thursday: An Awkward Show

Richard recently alerted me to the existence of the show Party Down, part of the Starz premium cable network’s hard-hitting lineup of original programming. It is available to watch on Netflix Watch Instantly, and at only 10 episodes, it’s well worth your time as you wait for new episodes of something other than the new lackluster season of Weeds, whose first episode was so bad that even I — the man who watched every episode of Prison Break — am considering dropping the show.

Party Down is essentially The Office, except a catering company — in fact, to me the main story arc seems to be straight out of the UK version of The Office in specific. It features plenty of awkward situations, and it takes advantage of being a premium cable show without going too over the top with it. For me, the innovation is the boss character. Both David Brent and Michael Scott have always rung hollow for me, especially the latter — whereas David Brent is a scheming glad-handler and therefore believable as a manager simply for that reason, Michael Scott seems to have an actual mental disability that is immediately evident from the moment you meet him. David Brent could plausibly fall ass-backwards into a management position, whereas Michael Scott probably shouldn’t be allowed to operate an oven.

The boss on Party Down, Ron, takes it in a new and more authentic direction: he is awkward because he’s good at his job (at least for the first few episodes) and enthusiastic about it. The Dwight character gets at this to some degree, but he also has a variety of other pathologies that render him unbelievable — and of course he’s not actually in charge. But you can definitely believe that in a field like catering, where “actually caring” is presumably at a premium, a guy like Ron who’s trying to get his life together could grab onto his job as team leader and throttle it for all it’s worth.

I think that the “true believer” boss is actually even more awkward than the boss you can’t really respect — his very existence lays bare the absurdity of the job as such, rather than being an awkward overlay to a presumably “normal” job.

Below the fold is a clip that’s completely unrelated to what I’ve been saying, but fairly representative of the general tone.

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June 11, 2009 - Posted by | Spoiler Alert Thursdays

12 Comments

  1. Having never worked in an actual office, I can still “identify” with the U.S. version of The Office. I have worked with plenty of dumb/incompetent managers (like Michael) who are totally clueless as to their idiocy/incompetence, yet manage to get ahead. I have yet to meet a truly competent one who wasn’t also a “dick.” Not sure which causes which, but they do seem to be correlated somehow.
    I don’t find the show awkward, but still funny (although they should’ve stuck with the Michael Scott Paper Co. arc longer…and had him actually succeed despite–or because of–said incompetency/idiocy).

    Comment by Toby P. | June 11, 2009

  2. Michael Scott seems to have an actual mental disability that is immediately evident from the moment you meet him

    This is one of the biggest problems I have with The Office. Granted, David Brent began to lean heavily in that direction in the second series of the UK show; the temptation to turn a character like that into a cartoon over the length of an extended series run seems to be enormous.

    Parks and Recreation started out heading in that direction, too, making Amy Poehler’s character sort of a female Michael Scott, but they seemed to be tacking away from that at the end of the first season, presenting her as a well-meaning non-idiot who’s nonetheless out of her depth.

    (My bigger problem with the US Office, however, remains that it no longer wants to make me laugh; it wants to make me go “awww” at how cute it is.)

    Comment by stras jones | June 11, 2009

  3. Main characters in American shows tend towards psychiatric disabilities after about two seasons; c.f., “Bones,” who started as a socially inept genius, but is now somewhere deep in the autism spectrum.

    I started watching “True Blood” the other night, largely because (1) it involves monsters and (2) because the new season starts soon and I don’t have anything new to watch. Five episodes in, I expect that I will stick with the show. Being the sociologist that I am, I’d prefer if there was a bit more on the “VRA” and the “coming out of the coffin.” Some of the side-plots could be scraped, most of those involving Jason or Tara/Sam. I was saddened to see grandma die in the last episode. She was remarkably progressive for a woman of her age in the deep south – open not only to blacks, but also gays and vampires. Going into the sixth episode, it has taken too long to reveal what Sam’s connection to dogs is – his barking/growling when he sleeps, the dog that follows Sookie around, the painting of the dog and girl in his office, that his thoughts aren’t processed like a humans, etc. Having seen Bill remember how he was made a vampire, I still don’t really understand how it happens.

    Comment by Craig | June 11, 2009

  4. I’ve been hot and cold on True Blood, I suspect because I saw the original pilot, in which the actress playing Tara was absolutely horrible. Just sassy in the worst degree. Her replacement is at least somewhat melancholy, which is rare on television, even in a Marvin-the-android hyperbole.

    Party Down is great. It’s also been fun to watch Rob Thomas’s ensemble pop up in various capacities; I’m hoping he’s saving Kristen Bell for a particularly good one. Each of the main characters has a perfect balance of sympatico and cluelessness that makes me root for their success and enjoy their failure in equal measure, which may be part of the feeling that awkwardness produces so well. And Ken Marino’s crew boss is especially good — he’s not nearly as pathological a character as Michael Scott, he really deserves a little tenderness, and he’s never going to get it.

    Comment by Wrongshore | June 11, 2009

  5. SPOILER ALERT: Kristen Bell does appear!

    Comment by Adam Kotsko | June 11, 2009

  6. I could never watch True Blood, because anything I’ve ever seen by Alan Ball makes me want to throw up.

    Comment by stras jones | June 11, 2009

  7. I’ve watched a few episodes of Six Feet Under, and have just finished the first season of True Blood, and – is Alan Ball just a racist? Or is there something else going on here that I don’t understand?

    I like vampire horror in general, but Jesus, the way the black characters in True Blood are written is like a hate crime: the sassy, can’t-keep-a-job young black woman; the sassy, criminal young black man; and the falling-down-drunk black single mother. And the fraudulent voodoo priestess! The phony voodoo priestess actually really pissed me off. Really, Alan Ball? You’re going to create a show that assumes the reality of telepathy, vampires, shape-shifting dog-men and pig-conjuring temptress-witches, and this is the one supernatural belief you’re going to dismiss as dumb country superstition? The belief in black voodoo? Seriously? I mean, the only thing that I can come up with that sets this particular belief apart from the other beliefs — which all turn out to be real — is that it’s held by the black people on the show. In Alan Ball’s world, I guess that means it’s really dumb.

    Six Feet Under, meanwhile, is one of the only episodic soap series that I’ve ever started and been unable to finish. I think I threw a cup at the tv during one of the last episodes I watched, during which a death in a family of stereotyped Mexican cholos is presented as a device by which an incredibly annoying, narcissistic upper-middle-class white family comes to learn some important lessons about their annoying, narcissistic selves. Or maybe it was the episode during which a death in a family of stereotyped Italian immigrants is presented as a device by which an incredibly annoying, narcissistic upper-middle-class white family comes to learn some important lessons about their annoying, narcissistic selves. Or, perhaps, the episode during which a death in a group of stereotyped pornographic actors is presented as a device, etc. Maybe this show gets better later on, but my blood pressure couldn’t take it.

    Comment by jms | June 11, 2009

  8. Weird — my Miro feed didn’t pick up episode 10. It’s nice to have something to look forward to!

    Comment by Wrongshore | June 11, 2009

  9. I think Six Feet Under is pretty much built around death as a device, jms. But I don’t think the family learns all that much about themselves.

    I’m a big 6FU fan, and I think it gets deprived a place in the top-tier HBO canon with Deadwood, Sopranos and The Wire because the female characters drive it so much. Even though it’s ostensibly Nate’s story, the journeys of the mother and daughter and the Rachel Griffiths and Lili Taylor characters are sweeping and melodramatic in the best way.

    Seeing Up this weekend reminded me of the trope it shares with Bambi and Dumbo where you’ve got to kill off Mom before adventure can begin. 6FU has a feminine (not necessarily feminist, though moreso than the preceding) complement to that: the father’s death motivates a certain sexual and emotional unbuttoning, a florid and hysterical epic that can also be deeply felt.

    There’s a widely derided turn in the 5th-season, but it’s worth seeing through to the end. Finishing Six Feet Under is an amazing feeling.

    Comment by Wrongshore | June 11, 2009

  10. Wrongshore lies! Like everyone who’s watched Six Feet Under, he is filled with bile, loathing and self-bitterness, and will not be satisfied until he has deceived others into joining him in his fallen state!

    Six Feet Under is denied a place in the top-tier HBO canon because it is shit, shit, shit, shit, shit.

    Comment by stras jones | June 11, 2009

  11. he is filled with bile, loathing and self-bitterness

    Do you want me to do the thing about rubber and glue here, or would “he who smelt it dealt it” be more precise?

    Comment by Wrongshore | June 11, 2009

  12. I think Six Feet Under is pretty much built around death as a device, jms.

    No, I get that. What drives me crazy isn’t the death, it’s the flippant treatment of ethnics and outgroups as comic relief, or as a means of illuminating the endlessly overexamined inner lives of the UMC white family on the show.

    Comment by jms | June 11, 2009


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