“Steve Guttenberg’s Birthday” is not the funniest episode of Party Down’s second season, but by eschewing the normal episode/plot structure, the series reveals its ability to tell fairly potent and mostly serious character stories. In this episode, Mr. Guttenberg allows the Party Down Catering Company to throw a little party at his house after a mix-up, leaving behind the normal zany work-related antics and bringing us something more substantial in the process. This is an interesting departure from the usual set-up and surprisingly, it ends being more effective than any other episode this season.
While “Birthday” does feature a number of funny moments — mostly coming from Kyle’s inability to hook-up with a hottie from acting class because McLovin’ intellectually c-block him — but for the most part, things are played straight. I’m not quite sure what to make of Guttenberg, as he plays a quasi-kooky, but mostly heartfelt version of himself who seems willing to take interest in the lives of these strangers.
And because of Guttenberg’s interest, the characters act out Roman’s script, but also face more personal issues in the casual setting. The surprise about Henry’s talent again reminds him — and us — that this was a guy who could have had it all, and while that’s usually played for jokes, here his past is used as a more dramatic set-piece. Removed from the rigors of his job, Henry drops the sarcastic act and opens up to Casey and even Guttenberg in a way that we haven’t quite seen before. He’s attempted to get back in the game before, but with validation from his peers and someone who *shudders* used to be one of the biggest stars in the United States, I can’t help but wonder if we’re going to see Henry re-think his decision to quit acting. In that sense, I wish the series could come back for that elusive third season, just to have Henry go off and become big like his talent supposedly deserves.
Meanwhile, Casey is moved enough by Henry’s performance and skill that she lets her disappointment with her other relationship fall away, so she kisses him in the hot tub. Again, that scene wasn’t played for laughs at all, it was completely earnest and about how Casey actually, legitimately broke this guy’s heart. It’s odd that amid the more broad, LOL episodes, the Casey-Henry relationship sometimes feels out of place. But here, it makes total sense that perhaps for the first time since they broke up, they’re not interacting as co-workers, but as friends and former flames.
The question I have is can/should the series do this kind of thing more often? The story has brought them into the party on a few occasions, and at least one person often ends up completely enjoying themselves during the festivities, but this is the first to go full-boar into it. I think the insanity that occurs amid the working structure keeps the series biting and hilarious oftentimes, but it’d be nice to have maybe one more episode like this to remind us that these people do have lives and personalities outside of the job.