Adam Scott could easily have been Jim Halpert. In fact, you can see a video of his early-2000s audition for the American Office online. As artifacts like that often are, it’s a bit uncanny. We hear deeply familiar lines, but they’re coming out of the wrong mouth. Rather than the squishy, huggable Mr. Potato Head of John Krasinski, we hear these lines uttered from Scott’s pinchy, pointed Tin Man’s face. It’s not the performance we’re familiar with, but even after hundreds of episodes, Scott’s counterfactual take on the character doesn’t feel entirely wrong.
And that’s because, in the nearly 20 years since he lost out on The Office, Adam Scott has become the face of American workplace ennui on television and streaming, an icon of white male mediocrity and disappointment. His snarky gaze, his air of resignation, his impotent angst—his performances embody the black hole that so many other performers on similar office comedies have managed to escape. Despite never appearing on The Office, and perhaps in part because of it, Scott’s career has been defined by variations on the dissatisfied working stiff.
The break Scott got instead of Dunder Mifflin was Starz’s Party Down, which returns this week (after a 13-year hiatus) for a triumphantly, hilariously grim third season. Scott plays Henry, a struggling actor who’s decided to stop struggling and just give up. He’s been to audition after audition, and his one glimpse of fame—a viral commercial in which he utters the catchphrase “Are we having fun yet?”—has essentially cratered his career, so he’s taken a job bartending for a second-rate catering company. At Party Down, he works alongside an ensemble of other failed Hollywood strivers. There’s the up-and-coming comedian (Lizzy Caplan), the has-been (Jane Lynch), the clueless hunk (Ryan Hansen), the unknown writer (Martin Starr), and, of course, Ken Marino, playing the anxious team leader whose dream is to open a franchise restaurant called Soup ’R Crackers.
Like Jim Halpert, Henry feels sure that he’s frittering away his life and his career, but he’s equally unsure about what he’s supposed to be doing with either of those things. He’s better than this, but what exactly is he good enough for? For both Jim and Henry, an answer comes in the form of a girl. There’s Pam at reception, and there’s Casey passing out hors d’oeuvres.
Perhaps the signal difference between these two shows, and thus these two parallel roles, is that The Office uses the slow-burn consummation of Jim and Pam’s romance to ultimately redeem their workplace, to reframe their failed escape as a homecoming. They were always the show’s heart, and their getting together completed its transformation from caustic satire to comfort watch. Party Down is comparatively heartless. It is not interested in redeeming its workplace. While Henry and Casey do get together, they are not soul mates. Their romance is consummated and then forgotten. (Caplan’s absence from Season 3 should be enough of a hint of that). Over three seasons, Party Down has managed to sustain the feel-bad vibe that nearly all of its workplace-drudgery peers abandoned as quickly as possible, and it couldn’t have done that without Adam Scott, the hollow core at its center.
As much as his face provides the iconic image of this character type, I think it’s really in his shoulders. Scott is physically slight, but his body subtly transforms depending on his attitude. Sometimes, he can seem lithe, cocksure, like a teenager ready, at a moment’s notice, to hop into a pickup soccer game. In these moments—flirtations, fleeting successes, crackling with the electricity of young love—he looks tightly coiled, strong and compact, his shoulders fluid and turned forward. But, at other times, those shoulders lock up. In moments of mortification, embarrassment, even revulsion, he becomes stiff, as if by remaining perfectly still he can either disappear or, at the very least, stay out of whatever social catastrophe is playing out before him. But then, in moments of dejection, loss, abandonment, those shoulders cave in.
He makes himself small, his collapsed torso almost too slight to hold up that big, bold head. And this is his iconic move. Adam Scott empties himself out.
Ironically, it was Scott’s successful turn as the chronically unsuccessful Henry that changed things for him. At the time when he auditioned for the role of Jim Halpert, he was actually a lot like Henry, if not quite on the brink of quitting the business altogether. He’d been a working actor for over a decade, putting in fun, memorable performances in bit parts but never capturing a series lead or a recurring role. Between losing The Office and getting Party Down, things started looking up. He had high-impact supporting roles in some Apatow comedies and was a co-lead in the bizarrely conceived HBO sex drama Tell Me You Love Me. In nearly all of these roles, notably, he played an asshole.
It’s understandable. The sharp features, the quizzically arched eyebrows, his arrogant flop of hair—Adam Scott looks like he would play the lead in a live-action sequel to Disney’s Robin Hood in which Robin and Maid Marian are in a loveless marriage and Robin has taken a job doing accounting for the Sheriff of Nottingham. There’s charm and charisma there, but it’s dangerously enveloped in the forbidding angles of his face. There was hope, but it’s been killed. This is a guy who is muttering an insult about you the moment you turn away from him; he’s unhappy and he will take that out on you. What Party Down realized was that underneath all that caustic bitterness was a whole lot of longing.
The shoulders tell the tale again. In one of Party Down’s best episodes, “Taylor Stiltskin Sweet Sixteen,” Henry becomes briefly convinced that he’s found a way back into the business (to play “young Abraham Lincoln”). For the length of the episode, Henry’s alive again. We see that his sardonic aloofness is a mask, an act to cover over his still-simmering desire to perform, to be on camera, to be seen as a real actor instead of another one of these fakes. And we watch him warily, twitchily emerge again. He starts to move with confidence and excitement, and his eyebrows soften. His face is no longer sharp, but vulnerable, ready to be seen and recognized. And that’s when the show smacks him the hardest. The dream was preposterous, now it’s gone, and Henry has to pay the psychic price of having allowed himself to hope for a minute.
That realization altered the course of Scott’s career. After Party Down, the creators of The Office returned to the guy they had rejected and cast Scott on Parks and Recreation. Scott’s Ben Wyatt entered Pawnee as a soulless bureaucrat, a disgraced local politician, and a mean killjoy. He was cast as the depressed and depressing foil to Amy Poehler’s rabid and bubbling civil servant, the type of acidic presence that could—at least momentarily—pop Leslie Knope’s balloon. When he shows up again in Big Little Lies—a successful working stiff!—we see the ultimate hollowness of the workplace dream. His Ed has achieved everything he could want, but he’s overshadowed in his own marriage by his wife’s ex and her lover both, and all that money, all that success, just turns into a crime scene.
Since then, he’s played a middle manager in actual hell on The Good Place, and, of course, he now anchors Apple TV+’s acclaimed office dystopia Severance. Scott is the only conceivable choice to play protagonist Mark S., a man who’s volunteered to mentally “sever” his work life from his life outside of work. Beyond the sci-fi pretzel of a plot, what Severance needed was an icon of modern office life, a man whose face could call to mind the office romances of the 21st century’s feel-good comedies, but also the dark inversion of their promise that hard work and pluck pay off in the end, or, at least, that dumb work doesn’t have to stand in the way of happiness. Severance needed to bring all of those references, all those decades of playing that one Type of Guy, to bear. The show is a bleak meta-commentary on contemporary television’s most overused tropes—the prestige puzzle box, the office comedy, the antihero series, even the particular style of rote attention these series command in viewers—and Adam Scott is the key to all of it.
Severance splits each of its characters in two: there’s the Innie, who lives only at work, and the Outie, who lives only outside work. Party Down is a show that’s only about the Innies. When these workers arrive at their jobs—untucked and unenthused in their polyester blazers and pink bow ties—we see the weight of their lives heavy upon them, but the show never follows them home to watch them relax after a hard day’s work. There is nothing outside the bar mitzvah or the orgy or the birthday party that they’re catering. It’s a particularly caustic structural joke. These people are defined by their work, but that work is ephemeral, forgettable, invisible—as we’re reminded many times, the cater-waiter’s ultimate goal is to not be noticed at all. And so while these characters talk about their failed auditions or their past glories or their franchise ambitions, everything that isn’t their day job feels like a dream.
In keeping with the established format, the six new episodes of Party Down focus solely on the improbably long-lived catering outfit—now owned and operated by Marino’s Ron Donald—each centered on a new event. The first new episode strains a little bit to get the old gang back in the same room—minus Caplan, who was off shooting Fleishman Is in Trouble, but with the addition of Season 2’s Megan Mullally and new hires Tyrel Jackson Williams and Zoe Chao. And all the jokes about improbable reunions can feel too meta by half. But, without giving too much away, the Party Down crew is back to their old tricks in no time, and the show settles back into a familiar groove. By the second episode, it feels like we never left.
There’s a comfortable familiarity to those old rhythms, those running gags, those recognizable line deliveries. But, unlike with other comfort watches from the aughts, there’s a layer of discomfort, too. It might be good for us that the band’s back together, but it’s not good for them. There’s an aura of despair to this well-oiled comic machine. It’s always been around, but it’s gotten worse with age. That a reunion like this could be possible 10-plus years on is terrifying, and the characters feel it onscreen, especially Henry.
Severance was really the first show to make a lot of use of Scott’s age, the changing of this snide smart aleck’s face from its youthful edges to its middle-aged crumple, the topography of those creases and lines instead of the sucker punch of that devilish grin. Perhaps once we looked to Henry as a bright light among these dim bulbs. But now, he’s not so bright anymore. Even his new budding romance—Jennifer Garner delivers some of her funniest work in a while stepping in as the object of Henry’s affections—has a whiff of failure to it. But this is Adam Scott’s art. He won’t ever move up in the world. He can’t ever escape. He’s always behind the bar, behind the cubicle divider, smirking until it feels like a grimace.