I recently found Party of Five on Netflix, having heard about it being popular in the 90’s. So I decided to give it a watch and I’m happy I did. Focusing around five siblings as they come to terms with the tragic death of their parents, it makes for earnest, moving and excellent television. What could have been an overly melodramatic concept, instead captures the things that young people go through smartly and with substance. Be warned, spoilers will probably follow in my overview of this promising first season.
It has been six months since the Salinger siblings lost their parents in a car accident and they are all still dealing with it. The orphans are oldest son Charlie(Matthew Fox); an immature, occasionally selfish 24-year-old who is appointed the head of the family; Bailey(Scott Wolf), the responsible but hapless 16-year-old; sensitive and awkward Julia(Neve Campbell); child prodigy Claudia(Lacey Chabert) and baby Owen. Each of them is trying to stay afloat and keep going with their lives, despite having responsibilities they are not ready for, thrust upon them. The shift in dynamics strains them all, as Charlie is not the most natural leader there is and frequently screws up. Bailey has to make sacrifices because of his maturity, which in turn causes his grades and teenage life to slide. Julia, who is a natural with poetry and writing, feels lost and begins to experiment with trying to be popular and accepted. And little Claudia, who is never far from her violin, is often the catalyst for mischief and sometimes soul-searching questions. The arrival of young Kirsten(Paula Devicq), who is hired as a nanny helps with things, yet gets equally complicated when her and Charlie become involved. The dramas and mounting pressures in their lives( loyalty, struggles to find oneself, love, keeping their father’s restaurant going and the nature of grief) is a constant burden as they really have no one to look up to. And with the many troubles of being a youth brings, it’s going to take a lot for them to get through everything that lies in wait for them. Through it all, the Salinger family, through frequently close to falling apart, manage to stick together through their respective grief and care.
There is something very organic about Party of Five; be it in the conversations of the characters or how they deal with things. Sure there is a lot of dramatic impact that is generated through the content, yet it feels very natural and how a family would be. The Salinger clan are relatable because of the way they are written, with the scripts fleshing out their tumultuous lives and fractured but alternately tight-knit closeness. The show stays on the right side of earnestness, only dipping its toes into sentimentality on the rarest of occasions. Originality is not what the show is going for, as it has the angst, hardships and relationships of adolescence in abundance. But that isn’t a deterrent from it, far from it in fact. Party of Five is a drama about the bonds of family and a mighty fine one at that. To be honest, lack of originality rarely bothers me when something is well made. The show isn’t attempting to be overly intellectual, and yet it does have significant clout when it comes to dealing with difficult issues sensitively. It’s the emotions that it really goes for and thankfully it never feels manipulative in how it elicits them. Too many dramas aimed at teenagers and young adults are superficial and shallow; Party of Five has a lot more on its mind and rises to a good level of genuine thematic material. The inclusion of a soft guitar score is another thing that helps shape the show, with how it creeps in and nicely aids with its naturalness and calm.
The tropes of growing up and discovering the complexities of life, seen from Bailey’s unfortunately tragic relationship with a girl hooked on drugs that he can’t see at first or Julia discovering that her late mother, who she idolized, might have had an affair are just a few examples of what is covered. And while the show is eventful, it gives equal time to each of the characters stories, that often intertwine with each other. Not every episode is a knockout, but really when is that the case in any show? But the vast majority of the episodes depicting the struggles and journey of the Salinger family are engaging and filled with sincere emotional weight. And even though the main premise casts a tragic air over things, Party of Five is far from just an epic downer. It inevitably has a sadness to it that is well shown, but there is humour, drama and heartfelt reflection that round out events nicely. Life may be unfair and difficult for the Salinger clan, but the overall message is one of hope, even in the darkest circumstances. Season 1 is the set up of the show and it promises a lot more to come. I reckon Season 2, like most shows, will be the main step up and really hit its stride. Not that this debut season is a slouch, I feel it will become more expansive and build on the impressive building blocks that this has formed.
Scott Wolf leads as the reliable Bailey, who is the guy who fixes things yet often gets things wrong too. He is still a teenager at the end of the day, whose had to grow up fast and is more than a bit resentful of that fact. Bailey mainly represents the assertive but unlucky spine of the family and its core, which Scott Wolf unaffectedly brings out. It’s hard not to root for him, especially when the chips are down. Playing the part of reluctant guardian Charlie is Matthew Fox, who also impresses. Fox strikes the right balance between Charlie’s desire to live his life and the sacrifices that he’s had to employ to keep his siblings together. Charlie is a guy trying to assert authority, but being constantly challenged with the feeling that he’s not up to it, which is where Fox really hits the mark. Neve Campbell is incredibly convincing as Julia, whose always searching for herself and uncertain of her identity. This confusion is played very well by Campbell, who immediately gains our sympathies and successfully embodies the depth of Julia’s struggles with adjustment. Sensitivity tinged with melancholy colours the sensitive Julia, as her kindness and search for answers moves you. By far the best thing in Party of Five is how well the cast works together. They are immensely believable as a family going through change and the unfairness of life. From their interactions, misunderstandings and ties, we witness a family close to the edge but slowly pulling back up to some form of normality. Little Lacey Chabert is delightfully as the precocious Claudia, who is mature in many ways but still very much a child. She’s funny, petulant and at times wise beyond her years, all performed with effervescence by the young Chabert, who shows no sign of nerves when acting alongside older performers. Paula Devicq, while a bit wooden at first, certainly grows on you as the romantic interest of Kirsten, while Scott Grimes supplies humour as Bailey’s wise-cracking best friend Will.
A heartfelt family drama that never feels too forced or hackneyed, Party of Five is an honest and eminently watchable series that has me very much interested to see what future installments hold. If Season 1 is anything to go by, it must be good.