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We return to the dramas of the Salinger family in Party of Five Season 3 . With more strife and issues at play than ever before, Season 3 is probably the best season so far, due to the astonishing maturity and how it isn’t afraid to grapple with weighty and dark subject matter. Be aware, spoilers may follow in this review.

Bailey(Scott Wolf) has graduated high school and is heading to college nearby. The thing is he’s feeling lousy and worthless as his best friend Will is leaving for a better college. Also present are the latent feelings of being inadequate over opportunities he’s had to sacrifice, like using his money to pay for tuition to save the restaurant at the end of Season 2 and having to settle for a college closer to home. He moves into a dorm and meets free-spirited Callie(Alexondra Lee), who he impulsively sleeps with and deals with his own shortcomings. After dutiful girlfriend Sarah(Jennifer Love Hewitt) learns of this and saddened by is increasingly erratic behaviour, she breaks up with him. All of this spills into a dependence on alcohol that amounts to dangerous levels. Charlie(Matthew Fox) and Kirsten(Paula Devicq) are finally making another go of things and it looks pretty rosy for once. That is halted when it is revealed that Kirsten has manic depression which started after the botched wedding several months back. It comes to the surface when her dissertation reveals that she copied work from somewhere else, resulting in her losing her prized job and PhD that she worked hard for. She starts to slip worryingly into the wraps of depression and out of control as an unprepared Charlie flounders. Eventually, Kirsten’s parents arrive and after a tug of war with Charlie, she is taken away psychiatric help. This leaves Charlie deeply saddened and lost, though he finds some companionship in a social worker called Grace. Still it’s Kirsten that Charlie wants most of all. Julia’s(Neve Campbell) love life and future are in doubt, with Griffin(Jeremy London) bailing again(before returning late in the game with a more positive and driven attitude). With high school soon to be over, Julia reconsiders going to college and living up to the label of always by the bookish one in favour of something different. The only thing is she doesn’t know what to do, after being so well so for so long academically. Claudia(Lacey Chabert) begins to feel left out of things and as the family is at loggerheads, she tries to bring them back together( for the sake of youngest brother Owen who as a toddler needs looking after) even though it shouldn’t be her responsibility. All of these events combine and threaten to tear the once close family completely apart.

As I’ve covered in the past when discussing Party of Five, it is a show that works on the emotions well. Yet it doesn’t feel contrived or overly manipulative because of the clarity of writing and content. Season 3 is no exception, albeit that is traverses darker territory than before. The Kirsten depression story line is honest and heart wrenching to watch as she slips into darkness and is eventually taken away for help, which devastates Charlie. It’s sad because Charlie wants to deal with it himself but is clearly out of his depth, despite the fact that he wants to help. If you don’t shed tears when Kirsten is taken away for treatment, you clearly need to examine yourself.

And big praise should be extended to the dealing with of Bailey’s drinking arc; which gradually begins to unravel, as opposed to all at once. The fact that time is taken to establish the slope that Bailey goes down through one drink here and a knock that influences a binge there, is exemplary and believable in how it tackles the insidious effects of alcoholism. A massive wallop and clout comes through in Season 3, with Bailey’s story the most dramatically and challenging one. Take for example ‘The Intervention’, which for my money is the standout episode of not just this season, but so far the show. the family, along with Sarah and Grace, confront Bailey and attempt to make him realise his destructiveness and drink problem. A real gut punch is present as everything comes spilling out with the strained family trying to save one of their own, but who may be beyond the point of rescuing. Things don’t go as you think they might in this heartbreaking episode that feels like a stage play, through the enclosed setting that scarcely leaves the house and the sheer intensity of the piece. Trust me, this episode will emotionally exhaust you with how deeply it pierces and how it doesn’t take the easy way out. And what follows as Bailey endangers Sarah makes for equally soulful and shattering viewing.

All in all, Season 3 darkest and most mature season so far. It starts slightly slow and some of the sub plots don’t quite add much at first, but gets into the groove of things quickly and with a sensitivity that’s been its chief asset. it still retains some of the earnest humour it has always had, but Season 3 is by far the most emotionally and bleak series so far and all the better for that. By the far the biggest theme that permeates from Season 3 is change. Whether it be Bailey’s spiral to Charlie’s growing backbone and Claudia’s reluctant maturity, transformation and challenging growth are the name of the game. Heck, even slacker Griffin returns and adopts a more positive and hopeful attitude than his usual

Scott Wolf delivers his most impressive performance so far as Bailey, who goes from the fun yet mainly responsible sibling to pathetic and angry drunk in devastating fashion. He honestly conveys the descent and feeling of being worthless that Bailey feels, as he’s always been the one to help but never really thought of himself. The boiling frustration reaches a maximum when his drinking spins out of control and Wolf’s tragic and heartbreaking performance only adds to the dramatic intensity. Matthew Fox turns in a sympathetic portrayal if Charlie, who is finally getting to be responsible after so long being anything but. Fox finds a genuine care in Charlie, that despite his stubbornness and less than ideal sense of support in the past, is still very apparent as he fights to keep the family in one piece. Neve Campbell hits the effective beats of capricious and mixed up emotions excellently, showing Julia as wanting to change and feel some form of release. After being the studious sibling for a long, she wants to let her hair down and live in the moment. Lacey Chabert as Claudia grows up quicker and assume some control, albeit of the reluctant kind that any young kid shouldn’t have to deal with. It’s something that weighs heavy on Claudia and Lacey Chabert is heartbreaking and strikingly precocious in how she presents the unwanted responsibility that Claudia must take on to preserve her family. And damn if she isn’t emotionally convincing when the drama hits. Appearing largely in the first half of the season and making a big emotional impact is Paula Devicq playing the depressed Kirsten. Trust me when I say she inhabits that crippling impact of the condition with moving clarity and pain, that it doesn’t even feel like she’s acting sometimes. Genuine decency and a capacity for forgiveness can be difficult to portray without becoming parody, but Jennifer Love Hewitt beautifully finds a convincing way to do it as supportive Sarah. Even though Bailey hurts her, she still wants to help him as she knows there is good underneath his drunken state. Alexondra Lee successfully appears as the free-living Callie, who isn’t as uninhibited as she makes out and grows weary of Bailey’s drinking. Jeremy London finally gets to be a bit more than scowling and handsome, finding a desire within Griffin to finally make something of life and not just be a lay about.

A dark and dramatic third season, Party of Five is at the top of its game with powerful acting and genuine heft. This allows it to be the best season so far.