Party of Five: The Complete First Season Review
Orphans. Audiences can’t get enough of them. From Dickens to Disney popular fiction is filled with stories of children who are alone in the world. Orphans are the ultimate underdogs, left with nothing these plucky youngsters must rely on their own wits in order to survive. Children’s stories in particular are fond of picturing the life of an orphan as one of non-stop excitement. As they would have you believe that to have no parents is also to have nobody to tell you what to do. The mundane routine of school, homework, chores and bed times is exchanged for a lifestyle of constant adventure. For an example of this just look at Harry Potter. He may be sad that he never knew his parents but the freedom he enjoys is the envy of kids across the globe. Of course the reality is a far cry from this fantasy. Whilst this reviewer has thankfully never experienced the loss of a parent it is no great intuitive leap to say that it is one of the most traumatic events a person will ever go through. Ignoring the emotional impact that comes with the death of anybody you love to lose a parent is to lose a safety net, and when both parents are gone you are on your own, emotionally, practically and financially. I doubt that at this point the freedom and adventure enjoyed by the fantasy orphan is particularly relevant and all that remains is the pain, the responsibility and the disappointment of adulthood long before its time.
Party of Five started life with the Fox network’s desire to explore the fantasy of freedom from parental influence. In 1994 it was evident that Beverley Hills 90210 was beginning to run out of steam. With their flagship teen show possibly coming to an end Fox were looking for a replacement and hit upon the idea of a show about how fun it would be for a group of kids to live on their own. The idea was given to Amy Lippman and Chris Keyser to develop but the pilot they delivered turned out very different from what Fox were expecting. Lippman and Keyser took the network’s ideas for an escapist piece of teen comedy and turned them into an emotionally honest look at what it’s really like to lose your parents.
Six months before the pilot episode Nick and Diana Salinger were killed by a drink-driver, orphaning their five children. When the pilot begins each of the kids is struggling with this new life in their own way. 16-year-old Bailey (Scott Wolf) has assumed responsibility for running the household and barely copes with managing the family’s finances. 15-year-old Julia (Neve Campbell) has become disaffected, going from straight A student to teen rebel in the blink of an eye. 11-year-old violin prodigy Claudia (Lacey Chabert) is the least able to comprehend what’s going on, looking for a parental figure in a house full of kids. 24-year-old eldest son Charlie (Matthew Fox) refuses to get involved; despite being legal guardian of his siblings he lives alone and assumes no direct responsibility for their lives. Finally baby Owen is the youngest member of the family and the one reason for the others to stay together. During the pilot episode the Salinger clan is knocked by a number of setbacks including the departure of Owen’s elderly nanny and Charlie losing $12,000 of their inheritance in a dodgy business deal. Whilst Bailey’s search for a new nanny results in attractive grad-student Kirsten (Paula Devicq) Charlie resolves to live up to his responsibilities as guardian. He moves back into the family home and grudgingly takes a job at his father’s old restaurant. When he does the rest of the family take issue at Charlie’s sudden claims to authority. They attack the hypocracy of the new rules he tries to enforce and ignore most of what he tries to do. The rest of the series is spent exploring this new family dynamic.
Most of the episodes over the course of the first season can generally be divided into two categories. The first and invariably most interesting story type specifically focuses on the relationships between the Salinger siblings and the ramifications of their parents’ death. The second is what could be referred to as issue drama.
Included in the former category is this season’s standout episode Thanksgiving, which shows how the family deals with the release of their parents’ killer. When Walter Alcott (John Rubenstein) requests to meet with the Salingers he sparks friction amongst the main cast, whilst the girls are interested in seeing him the boys would rather have nothing to do with the man. The strongest opinions are held by Claudia who is curious to see him, and Bailey who is the most angry and desperately wants him to suffer. In each act one sibling seeks him out alone and has a brief exchange, most of which end in them finding some form of catharsis. What we see from these encounters is that Alcott is not the demon we would have him be. Neither is he an alcoholic. Rather he is just a regular man who made a mistake. Like so many other people he had one glass of wine too many before driving home, and now lives with the consequences of that decision for the rest of his life. For a low rated show on the brink of cancellation doing such an intense episode was something of a risk. Thankfully the risk paid off and Thanksgiving set the tone for the rest of the series.
The issues stories featured over the course of this season pretty much cover the entire spectrum from domestic abuse, drug addiction and HIV to shoplifting, pregnancy and the joys of multiculturalism. At this early stage it’s usually a close friend of one sibling who has to deal with these problems, and they rarely stick around beyond one episode. If you read my Gilmore Girls review you might be aware that I’m not too fond of shows trying to address social issues in such a self-conscious way and this remains true for Party of Five. It does at least help that there are no parental figures around to provide convenient moral lessons at the end of every episode. Indeed the Salingers do prove on enough occasions that they are more than prone to mistakes themselves. It remains the case though that none of these stories are ever subtle and generally the ‘issue of the week’ can be predicted long before it rears its head. The worst examples of this include Julia’s HIV positive friend in Who Cares whose condition seems shoehorned in without real relevance to the plot or an attempt to educate viewers, and Claudia’s Jewish friend in Not Fade Away who prompts a highly educational look at non-Christian faiths.
Over the course of this set we pretty much cover the entire spectrum from domestic abuse, drug addiction, and HIV to shoplifting, pregnancy, and the joys of multiculturalism. It’s usually a close friend of one of the main characters who has to deal with these problems and it’s rare for these friends to stick around beyond one episode. If you read my Gilmore Girls review you’ll be aware that I’m not too fond of shows trying to address social issues in such a self-conscious way and this remains true for Party of Five. It does at least help that there are no parents around to provide convenient moral lessons at the end. In fact the Salingers prove that they are more than prone to bad decisions themselves, such as Bailey’s decision to cheat on an exam in ‘It’s Not Easy Being Green’. It remains the case though that few of these stories are ever subtle and you can usually see the issues coming a mile off. Sometimes, like in the case of Julia’s HIV positive friend in ‘Who Cares’, the issue doesn’t even have any real relevance to the plot. Rather it gets shoehorned in seemingly for the sake of it without even taking the time to try and educate viewers.
Beyond the stand alone stories each of the three eldest Salinger siblings does also benefit from their own personal story arc this season. These storylines range from your typical teen drama fare to stories of a far more serious nature.
Julia’s role for the early parts of the season is very similar in theme to the previous year’s My So-Called Life. From the outset we see her pulling away from her family and old friends. In doing so Julia follows in the footsteps of many a teenage girl and seeks to redefine herself in the presence of new friends. As I said My So-Called Life did this before, and arguably stands as the definitive exploration of teen angst, but the backstory Party of Five enjoys adds a dimension to Julia Salinger’s journey not present in Angela Chase’s. For Julia teen rebellion is not really rebellion because she has no parents to keep her in check. “Nobody tells me what to do” she brags to a boy in the pilot, yet it is clear that as a young girl on the cusp of womanhood she longs for guidance and when that same boy dumps her “there’s nobody to tell me what to do” becomes more of a lament. What Julia is rebelling against is not any figure of authority but rather her own mortality. As a former overachiever her biggest fear is dying before she has had any fun and she now chooses instant gratification over the obligations of her past. Unfortunately it feels like this story plays itself out rather quickly. By the time we get half way through the season Julia’s rebellions have run their course and we see a little more of who she apparently used to be. Most of her time in the latter half of the season is spent dating uninteresting classmate Justin (Michael Goorjian).
Warning: the following paragraph contains major spoilers for the season finale. If you have not seen this episode and do not wish to have your enjoyment compromised please skip ahead to the next paragraph.
In addition to being the most reliable member of the family Bailey also gets the bulk of the romantic stories this year, enjoying not one but two significant love interests. Whilst the first relationship with the sweet but generally unremarkable Kate (Jennifer Blanc) is enjoyable enough it is the second relationship with drug addict Jill Holbrook (Megan Ward) that proves most interesting. With Kate sex proved to be the main sticking point and she chose to remain celibate until marriage. With Jill that line was crossed before the relationship even began. Jill’s apparent promiscuity was the first of sign of her being a ‘bad’ person. In following weeks we get more signs. She shoplifts claiming it to be “not a big deal”, she provides Bailey with the answers to an exam, and finally we see a small bag of cannabis in her backpack. From here the journey to full blown cocaine addict is instantaneous. When Bailey finds out about Jill’s problem he tries to rehabilitate her, and for a brief time he succeeds. However Jill’s fate is already sealed and in the season finale Ides of March she dies of an overdose. Given how maturely Walter Alcott’s story was handled it seems odd that Party of Five is so eager to punish Jill’s mistakes. Indeed it seems like the writing was on the wall for the character from the moment she got into bed with Bailey. Then again Jill’s death serves a greater purpose for the show as a whole. This is the first death that the Salinger clan has experienced since their own parents’ accident and as such it serves to demonstrate how far they have come as people in this time. For Bailey, who has spent the entire season playing the hero and trying to help everybody around him, Jill’s death comes as the final straw. His reaction is to hit the bottle and to proclaim to Charlie that he does not want to love anybody again.
End of spoilers
Last, but definitely not least, we have Charlie who carries the greatest dramatic baggage of any member of the cast. As the eldest child, who has lived alone for six years, he is ambivalent towards the responsibility he is suddenly forced to assume. Throughout his life Charlie has never stuck to anything, be it job or relationship, yet all of a sudden he finds himself trapped as surrogate father to his four siblings. Not only that but none of them really take him seriously in this role. When he tries to wield any authority his family simply ignores him, reminding him of his own antics as a teenager. Understandably Charlie resents loosing the freedom he has had to give up, and the fact that he gets no appreciation in return. He longs to follow his own path in life but inevitably finds himself forced to tread the road paved by his own father, constantly reminded of how little he lives up to his dad’s achievements. One of the most intriguing aspects of Charlie’s character is the fact that Lippman and Keyser originally imagined him as a woman. It was only when the network intervened and pointed out that audiences would never take to a female character who rejected caring for her orphaned siblings that the character was rewritten. In light of this it’s interesting that a lot of what Charlie goes through seems analogous for the emasculation of many modern family men. In In Loco Parentis when Kirsten pressures Charlie to become more of an active father figure to Owen he struggles with the demands of this role. He points out that his own father never attended any of his birthdays because he was too busy running a business. Nick was a great father because he worked hard to provide for his family, yet when Charlie tries to do the same thing he is branded a failure. Not long after Charlie reaches breaking point. In Brother’s Keeper he is offered the job of a lifetime, but it requires him to relocate from San Francisco to Seattle. When Charlie suggests that the family move they turn against him and refuse to even consider the possibility. Once again he remarks that if he were the actual father the matter would never even be up for discussion. He would decide for the family and his word would be final. In the end he turns down the job but his sacrifice earns him no gratitude from his family. By the season’s end Charlie comes to accept his new role and the fact that he must give up much of what was once important to him. At the same time he realises that he would inevitably have had to grow up anyway and that he no longer craves his previous lifestyle of irresponsibility.
Considering the highly dramatic nature of Party of Five’s initial premise and the range of stories covered in this first season you would hope that the cast would be up to the task. Thankfully almost all of the regulars do their jobs very well. Undeniably the greatest praise has to go to Matthew Fox whose portrayal of Charlie is consistently both the most compelling and the most likeable of the season. Ignoring the novelty of seeing a much younger Jack from Lost there is always a charisma to Fox’s performance that encourages you to identify with the character even when you dislike his actions. Whilst Scott Wolf and Neve Campbell cope well with playing characters significantly younger than themselves it is Lacey Chabert who seems to be the weakest. Chabert’s portrayal of Claudia seems to come from the same school of precocious child acting that would later give the world Dakota Fanning. Whilst she is certainly talented at crying on demand most of what Chabert gets to do this year consists of various comedy subplots. These usually require her to approach the world with that blend of curiosity and naïveté that is so common of kids on American TV. Perhaps I am being too harsh on Chabert, most of the time it seems like it is the material at fault rather than her skills. Most crucially though the cast is believable as a family unit. There is a physical resemblance that suggests maybe these people could be related to one another, and a chemistry between them that you would expect of siblings. In the end this is Party of Five’s greatest strength. When you accept the Salingers as a family you come to empathise with them, and their story begins to affect you on an emotional level.
When this season was released on R1 in 2004 the biggest criticism that it received was for the softness of the picture. Whilst I’ve not seen the R1 release myself I’m very confident in stating that any hopes that Sony would fix this for the R2 set have been in vain. The picture on this set is one of the softest I have ever seen and looks constantly out of focus with objects forever blurring into one another. The worst moments for this are the first few shots of the main title sequence, which look more like a bootleg movie than an official release. Whilst I could write this off as a product of the show’s age the fact remains that there are plenty of older shows where the picture quality is better. Hopefully this is something that Sony will work on if they choose to release any other seasons.
The audio is Dolby Digital 2.0 including English, French, German and Spanish tracks. Don’t expect too much here either, but then there’s nothing in the show to warrant a better soundtrack. On a more positive note Sony do include chapters after the opening titles and subtitles for all of the featurettes and commentaries as well as the episodes.
Given the age of the show I was not expecting much out of the extra features but Sony seem to have assembled a decent selection including around two hours worth of featurettes and audio commentaries for three key episodes. One word of warning though, the extras do feature several minor spoilers for future seasons.
Commentaries on Pilot, Thanksgiving and Ides of March. There are two commentaries for each episode. A cast commentary featuring Scott Wolf, Matthew Fox and Lacey Chabert, and a creators’ commentary with Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser. Unsurprisingly Lippman and Keyser focus more on the technical details of writing and producing the show whilst the cast are more anecdotal. Both sets of commentaries are pretty good and you get an impression that the cast are really enjoying being together again after so long. Neve Campbell’s absence from the cast commentaries is never really explained.
Twelve sets of talking heads averaging at about ten minutes each. The first eleven were filmed specially for this set and cover topics as diverse as how the show came to be, the casting process, and the struggle to stay on the air when the ratings were poor. The first few featurettes are fairly informative but as time goes on they seem to run out of steam. The worst is supposedly about the show’s international success but just consists of comments on how funny it is that it gets dubbed into other languages. Neve Cambell does participate here, as does Paula Devicq, although Matthew Fox is absent this time around. The final featurette is a retrospective that looks like it was filmed around the time that Party of Five ended; it’s entertaining enough although it seems to cover a lot of the same ground as the others.
One other thing that intrigues me here is how much support the producers claim to have received from Fox executives. Given the network’s current reputation for swiftly cancelling anything that isn’t an instant smash hit it’s odd to hear of a Fox network that let a struggling show find its feet.
Trailers for other Sony releases including Dawson’s Creek, Bewitched (TV), Rent, The Partridge Family and Yours, Mine and Ours. You probably don’t care and there’s no reason why you should.
When I began the process of reviewing this set I had little knowledge of what it had in store for me. Whilst I was familiar with Party of Five’s format and had vague memories of catching the odd episode on Channel 4 in the late 90s I was not anticipating a show this powerful. What I remembered was a fairly average teen show with a poignant edge, not a truly moving piece of drama. The quality of the episodes presented on this set does vary and for every Thanksgiving there’s a stinker like Something out of Nothing (memorable only for an irksome guest appearance by Gates McFadden as a random friend of the family). Overall though I would say that the good moments stick out in the memory a lot more than the bad. Apart from the poor transfer I would say that this box set is also a good investment and the extras are excellent given how long the show has been off the air. Here’s hoping that Sony quickly follow it up with season two.