Party of Five Review
What is it about the human condition that makes us revel in other people's misery? Those frustrating traffic jams on the motor ways caused by drives slowing down to look at the crash on the other side. Is it morbid curiosity or something far more cynical? A morbid sight reminds us that even though our own life may suck, it's not as bad as those unfortunates. A feel good perhaps? I wonder if the prehistory humans all gathered to watch the failed hunter being mauled by his prey? Whatever the reason tragedy has always made a good spectacle, it's why it makes good drama for both stage and screen. However, it's not the morbidity that keeps us tuned in for this, rather the wonder of how others might cope with tragedy. It's why do the 'soap's' consistently top the rating's charts; tragedy combined with sacrifice and a never-ending slice of life; we watch ourselves played out on screen. A form of escapism tinged with reality.
During 1994 Fox TV was riding high with teen fantasy 'dramas' such as Beverly Hills 90210, a slice of life few can ever hope to achieve, when a decision was made to make a different kind of drama, set in a more down to earth homestead with a central tragedy uniting the main core of characters, which, it was decided, should be children. And their shared tragedy, the accidental death of their parents. That show was to become Party of Five and it ran from 1994 to 2000 encompassing one hundred and forty two episodes, was nominated for and won numerous awards as well as critical and commercial success, not to mention the legion of fans world wide the tuned in to watch the trials and tribulations of the Salinger children.
The first season introduces us to the main characters and their plight. In age order there is Charlie (Matthew Fox) at twenty four and legal guardian of the estate, for all his life he has been a bit of a drifter and now is forced into responsibility; Bailey (Scott Wolf) at sixteen a sports jock that also takes his responsibility to the family to heart; Julia (Neve Campbell) a year younger who wants nothing more than to live life to the full and experience everything before time runs out; Claudia (Lacey Chabert) at eleven is a child prodigy and violin virtuoso, like her mother, a scared and vulnerable child that shows the strength of her convictions when needed; and finally Owen (various actors) at one years old is the baby of the family and often their focus, not the only, but a significant reason for the family unit wanting to stay together. The pilot episode picks up six months after the tragic death of the parents and does a good job of setting up the main characters, endearing them with their various foibles, and flaws that will develop throughout the twenty two episodes of the season. Particular episodes of note are #10 Thanksgiving, that is a particularly hard time for the family throughout the holiday made worse by the release from jail the drunk diver that killed their parents and his wanting forgiveness; watching each individual deal with him and their subsequent action is quite harrowing and defiantly heartfelt; and episode #22 The Ides of March, the season finale, which in effect brings the whole season full circle as once again the family, though more specifically Bailey, has to deal with another tragedy of a loved one.
Taken as a whole the season is very well written and extremely well acted. Of course there is the obligatory teenage angst and the poor Salinger family do have to cope with a lot, yet the ideas remain at ground level and their responses are in the main believable, within the confines of the show. Production wise it never really escapes its TV look, the cluttered frame indicative of 1.33:1 may also be representative of the Salinger lifestyle, but somehow I think that's serendipitous. In the end its all about the daily struggle with life, be that hard going, finding love or affection and dosed with liberal amounts of humour. In the right frame of mind this series can win a lot of fans, and it did, though I must report that I, for my sins, did start to find it a little tiresome. The show, despite its fun elements, manages to maintain a level downbeat to it, and whilst this gives the actors much to sink their emotional teeth into, and much for the audience to empathise and relate to, watching episodes back to back it started to grind me down. However, I am clearly in the minority. Party of Five, which incidentally takes its name from the five family members making a 'party of five' in the family owned restaurant that they all meet up every Friday night, is a warm and touching teen drama, a not so cute slice of life based in the complexities of making ends meet through the struggling family unit. Many will find much to enjoy here, though I, unfortunately, am not one of them.