THE SHOWS "Party Down" second-season premiere, leading in to new half-hour comedy "Gravity."
WHEN | WHERE Friday at 10 and 10:30 p.m. on Starz
FIRST, THE RETURNING CULT FAVE "Party Down" is a funky, funny slice-of-life eavesdrop on a crew of Hollywood cater-waiters stuck in neutral. They're desperately trying to get into gear with acting or screenwriting. Megan Mullally joins the cast this season, replacing first-season favorite Jane Lynch, now on "Glee."
THEN, THE NEW ODDITY"Gravity" tracks the diverse members of a New York City suicide survivors group, revealing their eccentricities as it rambles to a rhythm all its own. In Ving Rhames' therapy session, Ivan Sergei's widowed ophthalmologist hooks up with Krysten Ritter's forlorn rich girl. She's being tracked for mysterious reasons by a weird young police detective (series co-creator-director Eric Schaeffer), while she's also stalking a guy she "met" while "dead."
WHY THEY STAND OUTStarz doesn't just zig where the others zag, it takes a flying leap with shows that don't even fit the "offbeat" category.
"Party" courted cult status from the start, being hatched by the minds behind "Veronica Mars" and peopled largely by performers from "Freaks and Geeks." Its cater-crew misfits wander each episode among fresh oddballs with their own axes to grind - Friday night, backstage with mopey KISS-like rocker Jackal Onassis (played by Jimmi Simpson, David Letterman's Lyle the intern), who so wants to be "regular" that he trades places with the crew's cynical sci-fi scripter. On May 7, the show's dry wit snowballs into explosive hilarity, when a lonely / angry divorced exec (Thomas Lennon of "Reno 911!") hosts an "orgy night" without actually telling his baffled guests of his intentions. It's always a tart stew of awkward run-ins, simmering resentments and calamitous overreaching, delivered with improv spontaneity and oblique dialogue.
"Gravity" is much more constructed, almost dispassionately piecing together the back stories of its should-have-been-dead people, while eyeing them in absurd situations. But just when you think it's all black comedy, there's an unexpected twist of sweetness or vulnerability that makes you take the characters to heart.
BOTTOM LINE "Party Down" took awhile to jell, but it has hit its stride as one of TV's most finely observed comedies. "Gravity" looks like another slow build. Its characters aren't as directly defined, and initial episodes exhibit curious methods to its storytelling madness.
GRADES "Party Down": A "Gravity": B