'Party Down'

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What better way for Starz to follow up "Head Case," a show depicting stars driven nuts by Hollywood, than with a show about wannabe stars going crazy trying to get into Hollywood? With "Party Down," Starz has found not only a companion to its first attempt at scripted comedy but also a superior one, though not quite the breakthrough the network needs to put its original programming on the map.

Amusing as "Head" is, with Alexandra Wentworth's inspired turn as a nutty celebrity shrink, it's a one-note affair. Not so with "Party," which makes the working stiffs at a cheesy catering service worth sticking around to get to know.

With Los Angeles as the setting, it's only natural that most of these characters are trying desperately to make it in Tinseltown. But that's not true for all of them: Boss Ron Donald (Ken Marino) dreams of trading in his pink bow tie — standard uniform for the Party Down crew — for the deed to a fast-food franchise. (Ron also happens to be a buffoon who acts like "The Office's" Michael Scott is his long-lost twin.) And then there's his old friend Henry (Adam Scott), a recovering actor who suffered an unspecified career setback that has left him sour on showbiz and life in general.

The only thing that seems to lift Henry's spirits is Casey (Lizzy Caplan), a co-worker torn between her own showbiz aspirations and a difficult husband intent on moving them to Vermont. The cast also features two graduates of the Judd Apatow Comedy University: Martin Starr ("Knocked Up"), an aspiring screenwriter who uses the parties he works as an excuse to peddle his "Jurassic Park" knockoff script, and Jane Lynch ("The 40-Year-Old Virgin"), who already has gone through the showbiz ringer and has the stories to match.

Rob Thomas, one of the series' four executive producers, isn't above calling on old friends from his "Veronica Mars" days to help out. Enrico Colantoni shows up in the pilot as a bored suburbanite who takes to skinny-dipping in his backyard pool to liven up a homeowners association party. He is topped only by Ed Begley Jr., who is a riot in the show's outstanding third episode as a pill-popping Casanova working the room at a singles event for senior citizens.

Each of "Party's" 10 episodes largely is contained to whatever event the caterers are working each week. No complaints here: Starz proves you don't need to spend too much production money if you can bring the funny. Moving from a powwow for young conservatives to a porn-industry convention sets up one sacred cow after another for "Party" to tip, but it isn't all about toppling taboos: Lurking below the surface of this raucous comedy is an astute meditation on the promise and peril of leading an unconventional life, something about which aspiring actors know a thing or two. (partialdiff)
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