Officially speaking, the recession was already off the books by the time I saw it up close and personal.
I left my job at a magazine in New York and started graduate school in fall 2008. By the time I reentered the workforce in summer 2011, the employment landscape had morphed into a new, spooky, twisted-tree country. While I was cloistered away annotating bibliographies and torturing college freshmen with an argumentative essay tool called the enthymeme, the print and publishing industry was busy staging an epic death scene straight out of Hamlet. Plenty of businesses outside my field had shuttered their doors too.
I’d known all this in my reason-brain. But I had to be on the job market myself in order to really understand the economic realities that many people had been living with for years. I felt like bizarro Dorothy, leaving behind the Technicolor lollipops and toadstools of my pre-2008 Oz. In grim old Kansas, the unemployment rate was stuck above 8 percent, and witches only biked to work because they had to sell their cars.
That summer was one of outright panic. I stayed up late into the night revising cover letters and woke myself up at 3:30 am, convinced I’d ruined my life at the ripe old age of 28. I was worried I wouldn’t find a job. But more than that, I was furious at myself for burning daylight. I’d known since I was 12 that I wanted to be a writer—and not the academic journal kind. So what had I been doing in academia for the past three years? Why had I abandoned the thing I really wanted for no good reason, and would I be able to claw my way back? Desperately in need of some laughs, and a way to pass the witching hours that did not involve singing mournful arias with a mouthful of cold pizza, I loaded up Netflix and started watching Party Down.
Starz’s cult series about entertainers-cum-caterers premiered in March 2009. It never explicitly mentions the economy—actors tend to be broke and out of work even when the general coffers are overflowing. But more than any other TV series, Party Down nails the strange despair felt by many a young person in the aftermath of the Great Recession. High rejection rates, minimum-wage jobs, stiff competition, plus the full-time job of stifling the fear that you’ll never succeed: we’re all aspiring actors now.
In an oral history of Party Down, showrunner Rob Thomas explains the inspiration behind his show. “If The Office is a show about people who have really given themselves over to the rat race,” he says, “let’s do a show about people who’ve chased the dream for far too long.” With this disheartening premise, Party Down plays earnest ambition and professional confidence for laughs.
Daffy, sweet Constance (Jane Lynch) is sure she’s a star, though her on-screen career seems to have mostly consisted of climbing out of swimming pools in B-movies. Roman (Martin Starr) is bitterly aware that he’s not a successful sci-fi screenwriter—but he thinks that’s because true genius goes unappreciated. Ryan Hansen’s Kyle is too in love with his reflection to experience a moment’s self-doubt. Ron (Ken Marino, exuding flop sweat) is gunning for success outside of show biz—his own branch of Soup R’ Cackers. A reformed party guy in a crew cut, he wants the world to take him seriously. He’s constantly trying to prove his managerial worth to the catering powers-that-be through techniques like the disastrously confusing Ronald Donald Dos and Don’ts.
As any schoolyard bully can tell you, he who cares the most gets the most noogies—so the show tends to spend the most time torturing Ron. Perhaps his worst moment occurs in the first season episode “James Rolf High School Twentieth Reunion.” Ron starts out trying to impress his former classmates with his pulled-together life and ends up vomiting in an alley while his high school dream girl sobs. He’s constantly finding new lows.
Within the show’s recessionary logic, Ron’s humiliations have everything to do with the fact that he values hard work too much. What the recession showed, and what every aspiring actor knows, is that hard work doesn’t always pay off. Ron’s cringe-worthy abasements are about a cosmic and systematic failure to reward hard work as promised. He’s all labor and no compensation.
Given this outlook, it’s no surprise that the show’s heart lies with cynics and slackers: comedian Casey (Lizzy Caplan) and former actor Henry (Adam Scott). But while Henry and Casey share an affinity for mumbling sarcastic asides while aging up virgin martinis with a splash of vodka, they have vastly different approaches to ambition.
Casey may walk around with a small, grouchy storm cloud over her head, but she goes out for auditions all the time. She’s trying just as hard as Ron: she just looks cooler doing it. The first thing we know about Casey is that she doesn’t want to move to Vermont with her husband because leaving LA means compromising her goals. She gets a divorce. That’s partly because her husband’s a jerk. But more importantly, it’s because being a comedian matters more to Casey than pretty much anything else.
Henry is a whole other can of diffident worms. With a single, retrospectively ironic line—“Are we having fun yet?”—his role in a beer commercial reduced him to a catchphrase and tanked his career. At the show’s outset, he’s given up on acting. What’s more, he’s given up on ambition more or less full stop. When a bow-tied Young Republican played by Logan Echolls tries to get Henry to buck up, he parries back with dry wit that makes disillusionment look appealing:
Party guest: One last thing: nobody ever accomplished anything by quitting. You know, what if Ronald Reagan quit?
Casey: Quit acting? He did.
Henry: Yeah, that’s actually where I got the idea.
Henry may hate his life, but at least he’s funny about it! (Note to dissatisfied emo types: If you want to complain about living in your parents’ basement or your dim job prospects, ditch the navel-gazing and start cracking wise. You’ll feel better, and suddenly you’ll find a lot more people who are willing to listen.) Even Ron comes to believe that Henry’s got something to teach him. When Henry tells him not to give up on his Soup R’ Crackers dreams, Ron counters:
Ron: You gave up, Henry.
Henry: Yeah, and that’s exactly why you shouldn’t.
Ron: Why? People like you, Henry. You’ve got Casey and you goof around, you don’t give a sh*t about sh*t.
Henry: Yeah? But I have no life and I’m earning minimum wage in the food service industry.
As Henry’s last comment reveals, beneath his droll resignation he’s really pretty bummed out. It’s true that his 15 minutes of fame as a commercial catchphrase stalled his career. But in his position, Casey would have bantered her way onto Comedy Central Presents. Henry’s not stuck because his career bottomed out. He’s stuck because once he got rocked by disappointment, he began denying himself the right to want what he wanted.
When you are a young writer, and you go to lots of readings and lectures and talks, one thing you can count on hearing from your idols is that you shouldn’t become a writer if you can possibly do anything else. It’s far from a glamorous job: the rejection-letter papered walls, the pauper’s pay, the long, isolated, boring hours sitting in front of a blank screen, waiting for something to say.
So I knew how big the odds were against finding success as a writer, and how much it sometimes sucked. A few years out of college I started thinking maybe I didn’t have to do it after all, not the way tortured artistic geniuses did. With the self-confidence of a lead balloon and a few big rejections under my belt, I thought I’d better hedge my bets–even as I was working at an editorial job I loved and, albeit very slowly, starting to get published in a few places. In a decision born out of youthful insecurity–and one that’s hilariously over-optimistic in retrospect–I went into academia because it seemed more practical.
But it turns out that building yourself a byzantine mousetrap that prevents you from pursuing your actual dream is not really sustainable. I was forced to admit this one day in grad school while I was grading papers at a coffee shop. At the table next to mine, a journalism professor was telling her students about an opportunity to write for a website that made jokes about cats.
“It’s not much, but it’s a chance to start getting your work out there,” she said, with a practical air. The students did not look excited. One girl shuffled her papers. Another coughed.
But a foot away, I was salivating. I didn’t care about the cats. I was just excited about the idea of writing something that people might read. I had to stop myself from leaping across the table and snatching the cat joke website contact info out of the students’ limp hands. The next day I volunteered to interview a successful alumnus who was coming to campus for the department newsletter. I got more satisfaction out of the experience than from any paper I’d written all year. Although I wouldn’t say it out loud for several more months, I wanted, heaven help me, to be a journalist.
Much of Party Down’s humor comes from big dreams shot down, grandiosity pulled back to earth. Roman gets high and has an idea for a screenplay that he’s convinced will revolutionize hard sci-fi. But when he looks at his notes the next morning, all he’s got are meaningless scrawls on a roll of toilet paper. Ron achieves his Soup R’ Crackers dream, and the franchise goes bust five months later. Judd Apatow casts Casey in a scene-stealing role that seems guaranteed to be her big break. Then she gets cut from the final edit.
The show is populist in that it roots for the little guys, but it’s also hard-hearted about their prospects. There’s no Coach Taylor giving tough-yet-inspirational speeches, no Leslie Knope swooping in to save the day, powered by sheer willpower and a constant sugar high. Most of the characters probably won’t make it in show business in the long run.
But in the series’ final episode, our cynical show tips its secret, hopeful hand. After Casey’s role in the Apatow movie gets cut, Henry finds her slumped behind a couch. In a scene that mirrors his earlier conversation with Ron, he tries to convince her not to quit comedy.
Henry: Listen, I am so sorry, but you know, Casey, you can’t talk like that. You have so much talent and you work so hard.
Casey: Yeah—just keep chasing the dream, right? That’s not ridiculous. And just keep trying because I’m going to make it.
Henry: Yes. You are going to make it.
Casey: That’s crazy, Henry, you’re lying.
Henry: No I’m not.
Casey: Yes you are.
Henry: No, I’m not, Casey. Casey, I’m just trying to help.
Casey: I know what you’re trying to do. I know that you’re trying to help me. Maybe if we were the same kind of crazy, but we’re not. Because if you’re not crazy enough to believe it for you, how are you going to believe it for me?
Her question stops Henry cold. Casey’s right. Pessimism breeds more pessimism. And when Henry tells himself he doesn’t want to act anymore, not only is he lying, he’s hurting Casey too. He’s making their world smaller. He’s holding both of them down.
Here’s another recessionary truth that I thought about that summer I did nothing but write and apply to jobs and watch Party Down: No career is a sure thing anymore. Even lawyers don’t necessarily get to be lawyers, especially if they graduated after 2008. Accountants get laid off. Scientists have trouble finding jobs. It’s a good idea to have a practical backup plan and a way to pay your rent while you pursue your dreams. But given that nothing in life is guaranteed, you might as well give your real ambitions your best shot. No matter how many times you get rejected, it hurts worse not to try. Rejections you can get over. Regret is a cannibal: it eats you alive.
The final few moments of Party Down pick up a day after Casey finds out about her role. She comes into work clear-eyed, brave again, and puts on her uniform. “Where’s Henry?” she asks. “Day off,” Kyle says. “He said he had to do something.”
Cut to Henry walking into an audition for Velour, a movie with a script he read and loved and willed himself not to get too excited about. He looks wired and nervous and pumped for maybe the first time ever. His hair is standing in every direction. He’s in a room with a dozen other people who look like him, and for all he knows there’ll be thirty more lined up tomorrow. The point isn’t whether Henry will get the part, or if he’s special, or even if he’s the best. The point is he’s got guts. It’s goddamn scary, sitting out there, waiting for someone to call his name.