In the opening moments of Party of Five’s 1994 pilot episode, three of the Salinger brood – second-eldest brother Bailey (Scott Wolf), fellow high-schooler Julia (Neve Campbell) and 11-year-old sister Claudia (Lacey Chabert) – shop for a car.
They’re in the market for a vehicle for Bailey, although his excited siblings know they’ll also reap the benefits. Accordingly, while they should be sensible by choosing a station wagon, they opt for a black, shiny, thoroughly impractical but impressive-looking Jeep. Moments later, Bailey is driving it through the hilly streets of San Francisco, his sisters enjoying the ride as he attempts to attract passing girls with his new wheels.
If the comment about a station wagon feels somewhat out of place from a group of kids choosing a car – overly practical, at the very least – then Party of Five provides an explanation in good time. Unlike their contemporaries in the majority of adolescent-focused dramas of the ’90s, such as Beverly Hills, 90210, the big hit of the era, the Salingers have more to worry about than simply driving to school, parties and to hang out with their friends.
Thanks to another car and the drunk behind the wheel, Bailey, Julia, Claudia, oldest sibling Charlie (Matthew Fox) and their infant brother Owen lost their parents six months earlier. Now, after their lives changed in an instant, the quintet only have each other.
The immediate problems, as laid out in the six-season show’s first episode, are many. Bailey needs to hire a nanny to look after Owen, otherwise social services will step in. Charlie is desperate to find a job, without which he won’t be able to make the next mortgage payment. The phone has been disconnected because the bill wasn’t paid, and the kitchen pipes are blocked but no one can afford a plumber. Claudia, a budding violinist, has even resorted to selling her prized instrument to help make ends meet.
That’s just daily life for the Salingers as they cope with Party of Five’s basic premise: growing up fast. The minutiae change episode by episode throughout the Golden Globe-winning series’ run, with new worries and woes frequently popping up; however the underlying concept remains the same.
Charlie might be 24 when the show starts but, with initial dreams of starting his own business, he wasn’t planning on devoting this stage of his life to raising his younger siblings. The same applies to Bailey and Julia, who’d rather be immersed in normal high-school antics, and for Claudia, who proves a particularly precocious pre-teen, but still struggles with the reality of suddenly being an orphan.
Not just another teen series
The entire gambit of teen-focused shows – whether fellow ’90s fare such as My So-Called Life and Dawson’s Creek, ’00s hits including Gossip Girl and Glee, or more recent series like Riverdale and Euphoria – is to chart the ups and downs that come with bidding childhood farewell and inching towards adulthood.
Each different program may boast its own twist, focusing on rich New Yorkers or Archie comics figures, for example, but they task their adolescent characters with wading through familiar and universal trials and tribulations. In the likes of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Veronica Mars, even living on a hellmouth and being a teenage detective sit side-by-side with falling in love and navigating high school’s social hierarchy. And while Party of Five fits the general mould as well, it also finds an immediate, realistic and serious way to amplify its dramas.
Where other TV teens usually have a safety net, with their parents on hand to offer wise advice, comfort their ills and bail them out of trouble, the Salinger kids are completely on their own. Unsurprisingly, Party of Five takes on a different tone and focus from other, similar series as a result.
There’s a rich flow of earnestness coursing through the show as its central quintet are forced to cope with the practicalities of everyday life – not just crushes on cute boys and deciding whether their chosen hobby is worth the effort, but working out how to keep a roof over their heads, care for a baby, and ensure they’re not split up and placed in the foster system.
Indeed, Party of Five’s characters are caught between both kinds of problems, yearning to live the carefree existence all their friends get to enjoy, but knowing that, for them, nothing will ever be quite that simple again.
If the gravity of the Salingers’ situation made Party of Five stand out when it screened from 1994–2000, the siblings’ relatable angst kept it grounded and helped ensure that, for viewers, Charlie, Bailey, Julia, Claudia and Owen’s struggles weren’t that far removed from their own reality.
Imagining what your problems would be like if you were a popular Hollywood teen might seem like pure escapist fantasy, which is by design in a series such as Beverly Hills, 90210, but wondering how you’d manage with everyday stresses if your mum and dad weren’t around feels far more visceral and tangible.
A timely update
When it first aired, Party of Five explored the Salingers’ predicament with a wealth of overalls, flannelette shirts and floppy hair, all visible signs of the ’90s. Of course, the show’s underlying premise isn’t chained to the era and it’s surprising that, with everything old becoming new again in today’s remake, re-imagining and reboot-heavy pop culture world, it has taken two decades to bring this series back to screens.
Perhaps the delay was a matter not just of desire and motivation, but of finding the right reason to revisit the concept. Trotting out the exact same story with fresh faces might’ve worked a charm. Checking in with the Salingers now might’ve, too. However, by exploring the show’s general predicament within America’s current political system, Party of Five circa 2020 adds a vital new dimension.
This time around, the Acosta family is the focus. Aspiring rock musician Emilio (Brandon Larracuente), 16-year-old twins Beto (Niko Guardado) and Lucia (Emily Tosta), talented 11-year-old Valentina (Elle Paris Legaspi) and baby Rafael haven’t had to endure the tragedy of burying their parents; however they’re still faced with trauma.
Despite living in California for nearly a quarter-century and building a successful Mexican restaurant over that time, their father Javier (Bruno Bichir) and mother Gloria (Fernanda Urrejola) are suddenly detained and then deported by immigration officials. Complicating matters is Emilio’s own tentative status as a ‘dreamer’, a child of illegal immigrants given a free pass by the Obama administration for entering the country with his undocumented parents, only for the rules to change under the current US government.
With original series creators Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman again calling the shots, the new Party of Five leans into its initial strengths, including its focus on five siblings in an immensely trying and testing situation. That said, while the template etched by the ’90s show still shines through, this version pulsates with added urgency and topicality.
Not only are the Acosta kids dealing with garden-variety teen issues without their parents’ guidance, and coping with all the necessities and responsibilities that their parents would’ve taken care of for them, but they’re also navigating the American immigration system, one which, as news headlines over the past four years have demonstrated, is hardly welcoming to people who enter the country illegally.
Back when Keyser and Lippman were approached to create a Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead-style show about kids left to their own devices – as a possible replacement for Beverly Hills, 90210, in fact – they couldn’t have known they’d be adapting it for a new generation years later. But, already tackling a complex situation within the context of otherwise ordinary teen lives, Party of Five is the ideal candidate for a remake – and a perfect fit for tackling the weighty subject matter and circumstances faced by the Acostas.
Season 1 of Party Of Five premieres on SBS VICELAND from Friday 10 April at 8:30pm. Episodes will also stream at SBS On Demand after broadcast.