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Inside the ‘Party Down’ Revival’s Top-Secret Season-Finale Surprise

Party Down - Season 3 2023 - Credit: Clifton Prescod/Starz
Party Down - Season 3 2023 - Credit: Clifton Prescod/Starz

This post contains spoilers for the season finale of Party Down, “Sepulveda Basin High School Spring Play Opening Night.

Throughout the publicity campaign for Starz’s unexpected revival of Party Down, the stars and producers of the comedy cult classic all lamented the fact that Lizzy Caplan was not able to rejoin the rest of her old co-stars due to conflicts with other jobs she took. Words like “heartbreaking” and “sad” were used repeatedly as Rolling Stone interviewed everyone for a making-of feature about this new season.

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So, about that.

At the conclusion of the Season Three finale, the story jumped forward a few months after Adam Scott’s Henry had given up on his acting career once and for all, and broken up with new girlfriend Evie (Jennifer Garner) in the process. He’s moonlighting again with Party Down, content with his life as a high school English and drama teacher, when who should walk into the kitchen but Caplan, as Henry’s old flame Casey. She both seems deeply unhappy with her success as a TV star, and extremely happy to reconnect with Henry, in a way that promises a whole lot more should Starz order a fourth season.

It was a big enough development within this small but hilarious world that we of course had to speak with both Caplan and Party Down co-creators Rob Thomas and John Enbom about how it all came together.

First up, Caplan, who found a day in the middle of her filming of Fleishman Is in Trouble to slip back into her old character.

How did you manage to do this?
Caplan: I was supposed to be in this season, then scheduling conflicts combined with strict Covid rules meant that it was going to be impossible for me to be a part of it. It was truly heartbreaking. It was something we’ve all been waiting for for so long. So then when they got in touch with me and said, “Hey, we can fly a splinter unit into New York to shoot this one little tag, we’ll sneak around. Are you up for it?” And I was like, “Obviously, obviously!” Having now watched the whole thing, personally, I’m devastated that I wasn’t there. But from a narrative perspective? High praise. A-plus.

Lizzy Caplan in the season finale of the 'Party Down' revival.
Lizzy Caplan in the season finale of the ‘Party Down’ revival.

How hard was it to stay mum when there was all this public talk about how everyone came back except you?
Caplan: Even though this was incredible to be able to pop in at the end, I still feel like I didn’t get to come back. But yes, it was nice to have this little secret. I was probably a bit more concerned than I let on to people that they would think I wouldn’t want to come back, or they wouldn’t want to have me come back. I was as verbal as possible about how much it devastated me. And my castmates were very sweet about making me feel like I was a part of it. Even though I wasn’t there, I was in communication with them. So it’s very, very bittersweet.

You were shooting Fleishman Is in Trouble while this was happening. It’s a great role for you, but was it ever hard to focus on the work when you knew what was happening 3,000 miles away?
Caplan:
I definitely talked about it a lot on the Fleishman set. It was hard, because I also knew under normal, non-Covid circumstances, that it was more than possible. My workload on Fleishman was actually pretty light at the beginning. So I was fully willing to leave my baby in New York, fly back on the weekends, and shoot what I could. But they wouldn’t let me. I can understand it to a degree: Covid could shut down production, so they didn’t want somebody traveling all the time. That said, the reason why the decision was both very difficult and not difficult at all was, Fleishman, I needed to do it. I haven’t felt the drive to be a part of something, like I felt around Fleishman, in so many years. It was necessary. I did think it was going to work out. I thought they were gonna figure it out, and everything would be fine. And that didn’t happen. It was very very sad. But luckily, I was having a wonderful, creatively fulfilling time in New York shooting Fleishman. It would have been dark days had the Fleishman side of it not been those things.

How did it feel, though, knowing they were doing it without you?
Caplan: I don’t generally experience FOMO about anything ever. I feel like it was my real initiation into the world of FOMO. I felt so sad and excluded from this reunion that, again, we’ve been talking about forever — since it ended 12 years ago. So there were those feelings, but also wanting more than anything, desperately wanting them to succeed, and to make it as wonderful as possible, so that we come back again. Having watched all the episodes, they’ve more than held up their end of the bargain. I can’t believe how wonderful it was! And also, as an additional unexpected pleasure, getting to watch it just as an audience member, I didn’t know how that would affect me. And it was wonderful. I just was beaming with pride and fully belly-laughing throughout all of it. I would be shocked if it didn’t come back after the season they did. They did everything perfectly.

And if that happens, how great is your desire to be in it the next time?
Caplan: I mean, beyond. Can you imagine if I just didn’t show up again? [laughs] But I’m completely gobsmacked that they managed to get all these people back together again, 12 years later in a way that works and is believable. It seems like it would have been a Herculean task, but I bought every moment of it. It helped that I wasn’t there, I hate to say.

When I was on set, Jennifer Garner said her kids kept trying to talk her out of taking the job, because they thought people would be mad at her for trying to replace you. How do you think she did as Henry’s new love interest?
Caplan: I kind of want to just rip Jennifer Garner to shreds, right? [laughs] Honestly, I didn’t know how I was going to feel. Would I feel jealous that someone else was there? But I thought that she and Tyrel and Zoë honestly elevated it, and we needed this fresh blood. She’s amazing. There’s a reason why she is a luminous America’s sweetheart. And we definitely didn’t have America’s sweethearts in the first two seasons. So I think that the whole company benefited from having her there. She was so good. It makes me want to see Jennifer Garner in many, many, many more things.

Jennifer Garner and the 'Party Down' revival gang.
Jennifer Garner and the ‘Party Down’ revival gang.

And here are Thomas and Enbom to talk not only about Caplan’s surprise return, but the experience of making these new episodes, and the chances Starz would order more.

When did you know that you’d be able to get Lizzy back for this scene?
Thomas: It was an idea almost from the moment we knew we weren’t going to get her for the full season. The mechanics of making it work, and Starz granting us the budget to fly a small group out to New York to do it, the logistics came together mid-season.

Was it hard to keep this a secret while reporters kept asking you about your disappointment that Lizzy wasn’t coming back?
Thomas: Adam Scott has been so militant about keeping this a secret. Countless emails between us, between us and Starz, in which Adam has emphasized and underlined, “We are not breathing a word about this to anyone.” I’m so afraid of our star that I was not going to say anything. It was important to all of us, but Adam led the charge. We even shot one other little bit of Lizzy walking out of a premiere or something that we were going to use in our first episode, and ultimately Adam felt like, “Well, if they see we’ve shot anything new at all with Lizzy, people will jump to the conclusion that we must have shot more with Lizzy.” So this 8 seconds of film that we shot with her, we decided not to use.

Lizzy said that the version of Casey she played here isn’t far off from what she saw in scripts back when she thought she’d be able to come back for the full season. Is that right?
Enbom: There’s a bit of that. It’s 12 years later, and we imagined [Henry and Casey] had gone their separate ways. We wanted to run with the idea that they’re finally reunited, and Adam knows what her career has been, and what is that like? And you find out that she’s miserable. That was where we started: two people who, one achieved what they wanted, and the other didn’t, and neither one is happy.

Thomas: It gets mentioned that she had done a couple of seasons of SNL. We had developed more ideas. Like, she got kicked off the show for accidentally swearing on live TV multiple times.

Enbom: She just screwed up on some level, but then she landed this gig as, like, Mary Lynn Rajskub on 24 — this great comedienne who ends up as the nerd comic relief on that kind of a serious show. We called it The Stabilizer.

Thomas: So she’s making tons of money and unhappily going to work each day.

What is Starz saying? Do you think you might get to do more?
Thomas: We have not heard a thing yet, but that’s not unusual. In fact, I doubt we’ll hear immediately after Friday night. I think they will see how the show does over a span of time, and then figure out whether they would like to do another season. They have been remarkable to us this go-round. They have treated the show so well and promoted the hell out of it. The first two seasons, when we were released, it felt like they went into a void. This time, it has felt remarkable, like 12 years of pent-up fanhood for the show had finally expressed itself. This has been a fun reward for doing this third season.

Zöe Chao and Tyrel Jackson Williams in the 'Party Down' revival.
Zöe Chao and Tyrel Jackson Williams in the ‘Party Down’ revival.

The finale has a very different vibe from what the show usually does. It’s mellower, more about everyone basking in each other’s company one last time, etc. Even Roman gets a wholly sincere moment with Lucy at the end. How much of everyone’s real emotions were bleeding into this one?
Enbom: I’m sure there’s a bit of that. We all really loved making the show, we loved working with this group and everything. So that obviously bleeds into it. But also, the season had been pretty antic. There’s a lot of crazy mayhem that people suffered through. In a way, we felt like, in tracking this arc for Henry, like this was the truest representation of where he lands, where his head is at, getting to this place where he was actually satisfied where he was, as opposed to always looking to be somewhere else.

You had to make this under crazy conditions to make sure everyone could be in it as much as possible. Having now accomplished that, do you feel like you’d have to get the full band back together next time? Or are you now more free to have, say, Megan only appear in one episode if there’s another season?
Enbom: I’m sure we would probably try and think of ways. Even the way it shook out with scheduling bumping people out, Covid bumping people all around — had we planned that, it probably would have made our lives easier. We were still able to use everybody in a satisfying way, but we’re cognizant of the idea that we don’t want to force the show to be an older version of itself. We really tried to be true to the passage of time, and the idea that people are moving here and there. And therefore, it isn’t always going to be the same gang in the same bowties doing the same stuff. Going forward, we’d probably maintain that idea.

Thomas: One of the difficulties of this season was trying to service eight series regulars rather than six. I think there’s less room for great guest-star roles. Even though we did have some terrific guest stars. It was tough to write to that many people. We love the entire cast, and if we found a window and they all jumped in, we would figure out a way to do it. But if a couple of people could only do one or two, that would work just fine as well.

Finally, what do you think made this season so good, when TV revivals almost always feel like pale imitations of the original run?
Enbom: This is an excellent group of people who will always bring their best. We wanted to be as true to the idea of the show as we possibly could, and not feel like we were doing some nostalgic reunion stunt. We wanted it to be, “Alright, what if the show had been running for 12 years, and this is Season 13?”

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