‘Party Down’ Knew What Toxic Fandom Was Before Anyone Else
Update: Since this article first ran, Party Down has been rebooted and premieres tonight. Our biggest question is: just how bad has Roman gotten? We feel like we know the answer, but it will be interesting to see if PD zigs there when we thought they'd zag, because boy, did they see the future back then.
If you’ve never seen Party Down, now’s a great time to watch it as the series reboots. It aired 20 episodes in 2009 and 2010, receiving rave reviews but attracting fewer viewers than most traffic accidents. Here’s a trailer from the era of absolutely terrible trailers.
It’s a very funny show, but it was also ahead of its time. It’s dark, but not bleak, as it gets in the heads of losers stuck with soul-crushing jobs. Watching it reveals a parade of faces and voices you’ll recognize from more successful projects.
It let its female stars—especially Lizzy Caplan—be unapologetically funny screw-ups at a time when many comedies relegated women to scolding and frowning at the men around them. And it completely skewered Martin Starr’s Roman, the kind of arrogant nerd who takes pride in, well, liking a TV show before it becomes popular.
2009 was a weird and confusing time for nerd-dom. You could call it the “LOL le epic bacon pwnz!!!1” period, if doing so didn’t cause physical pain, but we were definitely starting to transition from “nerds are smelly and gross” to “actually, being a nerd is cool.” And transitions can be… difficult.
Let’s travel back. The first two Marvel movies had come out, and one of them was even good. Star Trek had just been rebooted with a movie that was less about tachyon emitters and more about Chris Pine driving motorcycles. Seven of the year’s 10 bestselling games were made by Nintendo for the Wii, because every household had become a gaming household. The Big Bang Theory was becoming a massive hit by making undiscerning audiences say “Ha, that adult man said ‘Thundercats.’” Nerd culture was becoming mainstream and far more accessible.
Enter Roman who, a few years after Party Down ends, would absolutely be on Twitter screaming horrific things at women because they didn’t mind the Mass Effect 3 ending.
A frustrated "hard sci-fi" screenwriter who can’t sell his work, Roman was a ruthless skewering of the kind of fan we’d later recognize as toxic. He’s someone who insults his co-worker for not getting his Repo Man reference, then complains he can’t sell his scripts because producers and audiences are too stupid.
Think of an obnoxious behavior you see online, and odds are that Roman exhibits it. He complains when a comic book movie revises its source material to fit the screen. He dismisses any movie he doesn’t like as crap for children and morons. He’s an oblivious annoyance when he meets George Takei. He thinks he’s a misunderstood genius even as he churns out garbage, he takes any criticism as an attack on himself and his interests, and he blames his every failure on the industry or the cruel vagaries of the universe instead of taking a look in the mirror.
Shockingly, he doesn’t have much luck with women. He creeps on teenagers. He tells Adam Scott’s Henry that he has dibs on Caplan’s Casey while rating every aspect of her body and suggesting she should hit the gym and wear more makeup, then gets upset when she somehow decides to take her romantic interests elsewhere.
He’s awkward and inappropriate at a porn award show afterparty and, in a character defining moment, he blows his chance to hook up with the one actress there who’s into him because he has to nitpick the difference between fantasy and sci-fi instead of bonding over what could be a shared interest.
As comedy, this all works because Roman doesn’t realize what a hopeless a-hole he is, and because his rampant terrible behavior fits the sitcom shenanigans our heroes kept finding themselves in. But, in reality, this is not a man you would want to spend time with. And while Roman could have been dismissed as a collection of hoary stereotypes in 2009, when CNN was publishing “Geek now chic in pop culture,” he feels horrifyingly prescient today.
Most of the world’s nerds are normal people or, at least, inoffensively bland. But it’s the Romans of the world who are leading obnoxious campaigns to release the Snyder Cut, inventing conspiracies about underpaid game journalists, harassing critics and creators who dare to suggest the Marvel universe isn’t perfect, and trying to purge heterodox Star Wars opinions from the face of the planet like some sort of wheezing four-eyed thought police.
There’s a scene where Roman assumes a football player is a total meathead, then gets defensive when he discovers the guy actually knows more about sci-fi than he does. And that’s as good of an encapsulation of the problem as any. When you base your sense of self-worth on having esoteric knowledge, you no longer know who you are once that knowledge becomes mainstream. And so you don’t celebrate the fact that everyone likes what you like now; you become a self-righteous jerk about it.
Some of my interests are niche, as anyone who’s ever slept with me can attest to. And when a niche interest goes mainstream, it can be easy to see the downsides. Niche art can appeal to niche emotions, and creators don’t have to feel pressured to make a dozen different executives happy.
If that changes, it can feel like something you loved is being dumbed down, or like your clubhouse is suddenly and overwhelmingly full of the very people you once came there to escape from. Change can be hard, even when it’s part of your hobby. And there is an appeal to art that only clicks with a minority of people, as any fan of, well, Party Down can tell you.
The Marvel Universe is fun, but if everything became the MCU we would feel like we were trapped in a hell where we have to consider the impact on the overseas market before we sneeze. If you’re a social outsider, being a cultural outsider can also feel appropriate. But how do you complain about popular people when everything you like has become popular?
And so today we’re in the strange position where internet nerds on social media feel the need to both defend the bajillion dollar Walt Disney Company from mean old movie critics who supposedly know nothing yet have the power to destroy franchises with a stroke of their keyboard, and ruthlessly attack any decision that doesn’t cater to their whims. There’s a subsection of fandom that loves finally standing atop the cultural ladder, but misses the self-righteous outrage that comes from being the underdog on the bottom rung.
This has left us with a nerd culture that is simultaneously thrilled to be awash with work that would have been considered miraculous mere decades ago, but also furious that what we’re getting doesn’t match the demographics and visions of the fandom back when they were so small they could only dream of those miracles.
We all know the Game of Thrones ending sucked, but go back and look at some of the reactions out of context and you’d think people were responding to Pearl Harbor. Hell, people are still mad about it; here’s a recent thread of people hoping “fat f*ck” George R.R. Martin drops dead because he didn’t finish his books in time.
That’s because fandom can feel like a contract, a promise that if a fan offers their time and money then a creator will offer them something worth spending that time and money on. If you’re a fan who’s invested more, a lot of time—a lot of your life—into a creation, only to find yourself less happy with the result than someone who just discovered your passion last week, you can feel like you got ripped off.
Like the movie was made for the casuals, not the people who really love it. This is why if you so much as whisper the words “Last Jedi” angry nerds will tell you it was the greatest cultural atrocity since the Cultural Revolution.
But that contract doesn’t really exist, and believing otherwise only leads you to the bitterness of Roman, who was hardly an aspirational character. In an episode where he encounters his ex-writing partner, he discovers that the man he fired is now a huge success thanks to his adaptation of a novel Roman thought was unfilmable. The screenplay worked because his old partner thought about what would make the book function on-screen, not just what he thought would make fans like Roman happy. Admittedly, he’s also an a-hole, but that’s fictional Hollywood for you.
If there’s any hope here, it’s that Roman occasionally sees through his own BS. There’s a sweet moment where he gives a pep talk to his struggling co-worker, and when he’s finally convinced to re-write some of his own work he realizes that stories don’t function unless you consider the people within them. And once you start remembering that people in stories always come first, well, maybe you’ll be more inclined to stop getting so irrationally, volcanically angry at the people who make the stories.
Anyway, here’s a scene where Constance can't calculate how big a bird would have to be to terrify her.
Mark is on Twitter and wrote a book.
Top image: Starz