Is Los Angeles determined to make us hate it as much as it hates itself? From Larry Sanders to Larry David, and more recently on HBO series like Unscripted and Lisa Kudrow’s brilliant The Comeback, the city has portrayed itself as a curdled pudding of entitlement, its winners spoiled neurotics, and everybody around them poisoned by fame like a kind of radiation.
The appropriately titled Starz network features two shows in this new genre—one genuinely funny, the other flawed but promising. On Head Case, now entering its second season, the Larry is shrink-to-the-stars Dr. Elizabeth Goode (the hilarious Alexandra Wentworth, George Stephanopoulos’s wife and a great mouthy quasi celebrity in her own right). Basking in her access like a sleek tabby, Dr. Goode makes little distinction between her success and that of the people she treats, whether interrupting Macy Gray’s Obama fantasies to ask her to sing at her wedding or overseeing a languid intervention with the actor who plays Mike Delfino on Desperate Housewives. (The intervention is aimed at helping his director bully him into a gay plotline: “It’s either learn to accept a friendly blow job or move on.”)
A classic L.A. anti-hero, Dr. Goode is like Sarah Silverman with a Ph.D., all bad values and cloying fake warmth. Wentworth has a solid supporting cast, but the show’s true spark comes from the stars appearing as themselves—Janeane Garofalo, Jerry Seinfeld, Tori Spelling. Their participation works like celebrity jujitsu; by exposing their own narcissism to mockery, they appear sage and self-aware. It’s a tactic that might feel smug if the show weren’t so consistently funny.
In contrast, Starz’s new series, Party Down—oy, what a terrible title—isn’t nearly as effective but has moments of genuine bite. Like Extras, it’s set in the demimonde of wannabes, among L.A. cater waiters. Ken Marino is the Larry, a by-now-familiar cartoon of the delusional boss, a David Brent/Michael Scott without the former’s corrosive power or the latter’s sweetness. Luckily, Marino is surrounded by an excellent ensemble, especially Adam Scott, last seen as Palek on the beige HBO orgy Tell Me You Love Me and here working a similar strain of icy-hot passivity, as a one-hit wonder flirting with a married comedienne (Lizzy Caplan), a pair of Darias whose chemistry is communicated in morse code flashes of sarcasm.
Party Down’s satirical aim is unsteady, and the second episode (featuring Young Republicans) is so dated it’s practically unwatchable. But there’s sharp dialogue and insight into the nature of snuffed ambition. It reminded me of a gentler show of years ago, The It Factor. Driven less by contempt than by empathy, it followed real actors, most of whom never got anywhere, but almost all seemed worth rooting for.