Interview: 'Party Down' co-creator John Enbom post-mortems season two
Season two of "Party Down" concluded tonight with the return of Jane Lynch as Constance Carmell, with an unlikely cameo, with a not-so-triumphant (but hilarious) performance by Kyle's band, and with the writers inadvertently giving themselves a means to easily write out Henry now that Adam Scott has left the show for "Parks and Recreation."
Yesterday, I posted my interview with Scott about his departure. Tonight, in lieu of reviewing the finale, I'll do what I did last season, and close the season with a long Q&A with "Party Down" co-creator John Enbom that I conducted earlier this week, touching on the stories of season two, his feeling about both Scott and Ryan Hansen taking other jobs, his odds on Starz ordering another season and a lot more. All that coming up just as soon as I need a spirit animal...
Other than swapping Constance out for Lydia, what did you feel was the biggest difference between season one and season two?
We felt like we had a little bit of an idea of what we were doing. We had done the shakedown cruise in season one, just on a practical level in terms of how the show could actually be produced, and everybody finding their characters. The biggest change for us was that we didn't have to worry about those aspects of the show as much. We were much more focused just on writing good episodes, and finding new ways to do things. We were mostly concerned with not repeating ourselves. We had done all the easy stories in the first season. The major change in focus was we no longer were worried about actually making the show. We were concerned about the content rather than the form.
And you returned with a bunch of characters in different emotional or comedic places than when you'd left.
Going back to not wanting to repeat ourselves. We started in the obvious place, especially with Henry. He was very much the character that we originally identified with: this guy who had chosen to sort of call it quits. And we took that I think as far as we could in the first season. We felt like we then had to put him in a different situation for season two. We couldn't just leave him hovering for however long the show ran. It's too static of a place to be. We certainly changed up where he was at, and tried to develop, as much as we could, where the other characters were coming from without making everybody so dynamic that they would just move themselves out of the show. That's part of the challenge of the show: if anybody enjoys too much success, they're not on the show anymore.
Well, in episode two you introduced the idea of Casey doing the Apatow movie. Were you just assuming people would assume this would fail for her? What was your expectation for the audience on that?
It is simply at face value, that sense that you can do everything possible and make all the right moves, and it's still out of your hands. We're always interested in the idea that fate plays as much of a role as the traditional virtues of talent, work, heart, hustle and that stuff. That certainly was the case with Henry in a way. I think we have that line in the Guttenberg episode, where he tells Henry, "9 times out of 10, if you've got what it takes, you break through." And Henry has that line, "But what about that one guy?" So to a degree, we wanted to have Casey experience that. That had always been part of the gap between Henry and Casey, where Casey is a more ambitious and hustling character at this point, and retains that faith, that to dig in and try to make it in that world is going to pay off for her. We wanted to expose her to the idea that a lot of these things are out of her control. In a way, it was a gesture towards bringing her a little bit closer to where Henry's head is at. We had talked about the idea of a faith gap between the two of them, where they're simpatico in many ways, and this is the big difference between them: Henry no longer believed, whereas Casey very much still did.
When you wrote the finale and wrote the last scene with Henry going into audition, at that point you didn't know whether or not there'd be another season, whether you'd be able to do it with Adam, etc. In a fantasy world where you were renewed and Adam had not gone to do "Parks and Rec," would the story for Henry have been different than what it will have to be now if there is a third season?
Absolutely. We didn't feel that we could keep Henry just spinning his wheels as a kind of guy who chose not to make a choice one way or the other. He didn't like just being a professional catering team manager. At a certain point, we knew that we either needed to move him one way or the other, and that was what we had chosen to do. We gave him this moment with Casey, where in a way he's going back to take this audition just as much to prove himself to her as he's doing it for his own purposes. I think we had intended for the hypothetical third season that this would be just another thing that we would deal with. We could always go for the thing where he went out for the audition and it didn't work out and he felt slapped back down, or we could find him in the third season where, against his own better judgment, he's back on the treadmill. Those are things we were looking to deal with. For better or for worse, we now don't have as many options. We still have him for three episodes in a third season, so we can still imagine where he ends up.
Does this give you license, if you do come back, for him to be much more successful than he would have been had he still been a regular?
Absolutely, and it's something we had glancingly discussed. Because our own fate is so uncertain, we don't get too far ahead of ourselves, because we have no idea idea what's going to happen to us. We tend not to go too far down the road until we know what the road's going to be. But it's something we were always curious about: how would he deal with it? What would he do if it did work out? What if we came back in the third season if he were a working actor again, now dealing with the people he once reacted to as the delusional strugglers, and "I'm the only guy who knows the score" and all of a sudden we see him back in the game? We were always interested in that fine line between what Henry is willing to believe, what he's willing to commit to and all of that sort of stuff. It's certainly still out there, and something we will be dealing with in that hypothetical and dearly hoped-for third season.
Let's talk about that. Where do things stand right now?
Sort of where they were. Our fate is very much in Starz's hands, and we have not heard one way or the other. We've been hoping we're going to hear something before the season finishes its run, but we are by and large waiting by the phone, staring at it, hoping it will ring. That's just a lot having to do with where Starz the network is at. There's not a lot we can do on our end but cross our fingers.
During that long period between when you wrapped the season and you came on, Adam took the other job, Ryan did a pilot, Lizzy (Caplan) did a pilot that she eventually backed out of. How were you and Rob (Thomas) and Dan (Etheridge) coping with these events?
We would always fall back on just where we had started out. The sort of non-traditional deal structure we had with all the actors meant that from the very moment we pitched the show, we had to have in the back of our minds the idea that the cast was a bit fluid. We knew that we simply did not have the resources to lock everybody down. It was always something we hoped we wouldn't have to deal with. I think we had enough good will with the cast that, all things being equal, we wouldn't have had to. We were just, in many ways, a victim of timing. We wrapped before pilot season and we didn't air until after pilot season. And that's something we avoided in the first season, we went on in March and wrapped in February, so we had a very short period of time between when we finished and when we got picked up. This time we had this big gap, and in the face of not knowing, we simply were not in a position legally or morally to try and convince people to give up paying work in order to keep hope alive. When we heard about Adam, and the same thing with Ryan, we couldn't really do much besides wish them well, because what else could we say?
While this is a cast of equals, thematically Henry is a much more important character than virtually anybody else on the show. How difficult is it going to be, if you come back, to fill that spot, or to come up with a different kind of character who can fill some of the functions that Adam did.
it will certainly be a challenge. We'll use the word "challenge," just because I don't want to focus on the difficulty. Henry was very much the primary character that we first conceived of, so he represents, without a doubt, so many of the issues and situations that first drew us to the show. So there's no doubt that, not even replacing him, but realigning the show in a new way is going to be a big challenge for us. We hope that it's the sort of thing where we go in and roll up our sleeves and we find a way to do it. It's certainly possible, and it's a rich enough world that there's a number of different angles you can approach if from. This would be a case of us just shifting our perspective. That said, it was certainly a bummer. Besides the fact that we love the character, Adam is simply fantastic as the still center of the whole thing. That's a blow, without a doubt.
In terms of having replaced Jane (Lynch) with Megan (Mullally) this year, what did you learn in terms of how bringing in someone new or taking out someone old alters the character dynamics?
More than anything, it made us reflect on what we need to do to sort of maintain a balance amongst the whole team. There is sort of an underlying current of bitterness among many of the characters that is very easy to tip into darkness. And we certainly don't want to be making a dark show. We're dealing with a lot of somewhat unpleasant emotional states, in the sense that a lot of these people are right on that borderline between resentment and delusion and all these darker places to be. It's important to keep enough positivity in the mix that the show doesn't just tip over under its own weight. Without a doubt, we spent a lot of time thinking about the balance of how everyone's going to interact. We took that into account when we were dealing with Megan's character. We very much wanted somebody who could keep this kind of wide-eyed quality and more upbeat approach to the whole endeavor that could keep that mind state in the mix. In a new world where we have to do that, not just with Adam and Ryan's character, but finding new ways to deal with the same issues from a new perspective - that's first and foremost in our minds as we idly mull over the ways that we can approach a third season.
Do you feel that the change changed the way other characters were written? I ask this because some of my readers felt that Kyle, without Constance as a sometime-partner, and therefore primarily with Roman, became a bit dimmer.
It certainly changed the fact that he had lost an ally, in a way. So as a result, we did have much more Kyle/Roman interaction, and that's another thing. We've even talked about now just who would replace Adam of it all, but who fills Kyle's slot, as well? We'd always conceived of Kyle as the guy who kind of unthinkingly succeeds, in a way that other characters, perhaps, with more direct forethought, fail. That was, to us, the sort of comedy of the relationship between Roman and Kyle is that Roman probably obsesses about what he's doing more than any of them, and is probably the least successful. That's something we'd want to keep in there and figure out new ways to approach it as well. It surprised us in many ways, because as we found in the first season, it takes a while to develop the characters within the show, so we had those issues in season two with Megan's character. She literally walked on the set on the first day, and we said, "Okay, let's see how this goes. Let's start feeling it out." We fully expect we'd have to do that in a third season as well. We do spend a lot of time trying to think about the balance just as much as a funny new character we can bring in.
People seemed to really respond strongly to Lydia's role in the draft night episode from last week. And she showed some different colors throughout the season. Was there one episode or one scene where you felt, "Okay, now it's working, now we have her clicking with everybody else"?
I definitely think for me, personally, that really came in the third episode. The first episode was so pilot-y in the way we were rebooting the whole series. It was in the third episode where she really had some stuff to do and we could get a sense of where she was coming from as an individual. She's a stranger in town, wide-eyed, "This is amazing!" type person. To me, that's where she started to really click as kind of who she was. The draft day episode was a great showcase for her, it was great to see her finally as the only one who knew what was going on, which was kind of a refreshing reversal, whereas she comes across as wildly naive compared to the other characters. I think Megan herself was such a great addition in the sense that she totally threw herself into it and was simply great in the ensemble. The chemistry amongst the gang is so crucial to how everybody is able to play off each other. That was the biggest relief of all: she came right in and fit right in with the whole style and the whole gang and kept it this well-oiled machine.
I want to go back to Roman, and specifically the Guttenberg episode, which reveals two things: that Henry is really talented and that Roman is not in any way talented at all, or at least not at the level that he thinks he is.
That was a happy coincidence. We had had on our general idea board this notion that we wanted to establish that Henry was talented, that the failure of his career was through no fault of his own abilities. That was something we were looking for an opportunity to deal with. And, separately, we had scribbled in the, "Wouldn't this be silly?" file that they read a scene from one of Roman's scripts... at first it was going to be a cold open, pre-credits sequence as a one-off joke. We were happy to be able to collapse them both. The Henry side is what it is, but the interesting thing for me was Roman and him being so reluctant to actually put his work out there, it was kind of an insight into who he is and why he is able to think of himself as so superior. We realize that his whole life is lived within his own head and he has no idea how other people might perceive what he does. That's what I loved the most about the whole episode, the idea of Guttenberg as this kind of artistic nurturer who will pat you on the side of the head and give you this very real pep talk about how you cannot achieve anything without putting yourself at risk. In a world where Roman develops at all, that was the most important lesson for him. I imagined him as the guy who had a ton of material just sitting on his computer that he never let anybody read; he just didn't think there was anyone capable of understanding what he was doing. In a weird way, it's kind of a way to pull him into the human race. That was another thing we wanted to plant with the final gag in the finale: This idea that there's every chance that he's written his masterpiece on a pile of toilet paper. We'll see. One of the things going back to season one was we always knew we could lose people. Originally, we had had all these prospective ideas for, "What do we do if we can't get people back?" Everyone had their own little model for, if we couldn't get them back on the show, what would happen to them. If Martin was going to leave, how would we imagine Roman succeeding? So we planted this seed that he had been forced to re-examine his own methods and possibly even grow.
So the idea is that, while the script they read at Guttenberg's house was awful, he was going to improve from having seen it performed?
Yeah, and open up to the idea that he had never reconsidered anything he did. He was un-self-critical. He was his own biggest fan, and as a result, never progressed. And so just being a writer, in my own life, you can go back and think, "What a big deal it is to show something to somebody and open yourself up to the possibility that you're simply no good." I think him getting over that hurdle was kind of a big deal for him. That, again, comes from our own experiences as well. There's certainly a lot of potential for humiliation when you put yourself out there. That was one of the things I felt Roman was unable to deal with, which is why he was the genius in his own mind rather than somebody who had all of his stuff out there all the time.
Is Constance in the finale because that's when "Glee" had Jane available scheduling-wise, or was there another reason?
I think we arranged that deal before we knew what to do with her. Once we realized that she could be free to us at the end of the season, we immediately thought this was perfect. We could get Jane back, we now have this mini-tradition of ending on weddings. It all fell into place and very much catered to the event quality of the thing. Once we knew we had her available around that time, it seemed like the perfect finale, and we ran with it.
What happened to the Eastern European mobster who drank the Blahpui and all that?
He, I guess that didn't work out. At one point in a draft, we had every one of her exes at the wedding, and then it was simply unproduceable, expense-wise, trying to wrangle every actor and all these people back to an episode that was already one of our biggest episodes. We simply couldn't do it. That became our Patrick Duffy moment, so we can have one blast from the past, and it will be Patrick Duffy.
Why Patrick Duffy?
The list was, "Who will her old flames be?" He was one of the guys at the top of our list, and he was totally willing to do it. We wanted somebody who would be able to come in and really go for it without feeling sensitive how they were being portrayed playing themselves. That was one of the great things about Patrick: he waded right in and gave it his all.
With Jane, you only got her for one episode this year, but Adam gets to do three if you come back. Is NBC more laid-back about it? How did he pull that off?
I believe it was the deal he made. I think he went out and said, "This is important to me," so that became part of the deal-making process. With Jane, it was harder, because she already belonged to Fox even before we started the first season. We were only able to sneak her in because they kept moving the shoot date for "Glee." Adam was able to make those contractual requests upfront, which, again, will go into the idea pile, once we are hopefully given that luxury to start thinking about what we can do with him.
Have they at least given us an idea about when a decision might be made?
They told us that they want to try to figure it out before we finish. So that puts us with, like, a week, but we don't really know. Because we're not a regular-season show on network TV where they have these pressures to have all their business figured out beforehand, they're not under powerful institutional pressures to let us know one way or the other. We've always done the show when people were free to do it. Again, we're in a position where we just have to wait. We certainly pester them, but I think they've got all their own fish to fry as they figure out what to do with the network at this point, going much more heavily into scripted programming. We are the piece that they are waiting to fit into their puzzle.
Today, it's Tuesday. The finale airs Friday. How optimistic are you feeling today?
It's tough to say. We've been constantly optimistic just because we want to be and we feel the show warrants it. We feel very happy with what we've done, we feel we've done good work, we've done everything we hoped to do in terms of getting the show on the air, having it get some attention for ourselves and the network, and give a sense that you can do a good show for this scrappy little budget and have it deliver in the world of, "Oh, Starz makes interesting shows." On that regard, we've always felt very good about our chances. Our fate is totally out of our hands. We do our best to put a positive face on it and we feel confident that, regardless of what has happened with castmembers and scheduling or anything, the show is built to withstand these kinds of shocks. We are prepared to do anything, and we feel confident about our ability to make the show in any new form it has to. Mostly, we put out as many good vibes as we can and cross our fingers.
That said, 50/50 might be a bit on the optimistic side. And on our less optimistic days, it's maybe 1 in 100. But simply because they haven't said "Thanks, but no thanks" already, we still hold out hope, without a doubt. I don't think any of us are banking on it. And we also understand it's not the highest-rated show in the world, and I'm sure they would love to have something that breaks through in a more mainstream kind of way. For better or for worse, we understand the position we're in and that we can't get too self-righteously indignant about the fate of the show. They can always show us an audience spreadsheet and we can kind of shrug. So to put a number on it, I'd say we're at a 3 out of 10, but it's a very strong and good vibe-sy kind of a 3.
Because the show has always been kind of non-traditional in the way it's unfolded, we're used to the idea that we just wait around and have to be prepared to leap into action if the alarm goes off. If worst comes to worst and it doesn't, we can still look back and feel that against all the odds, we managed to crank out two good seasons. It was kind of a miraculous situation to be able to make a show like this in the style that we made it. So we also understand how lucky we are and we aren't in a position to start throwing fits or anything like that.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org