Ah, to be young, beautiful, and victims of tragedy. Appellate Judge Amanda DeWees says some kids have all the luck.
"We gotta get through this stuff together."
In 1994, Party of Five arrived on television with a fresh, innovative, and completely irresistible formula: a handsomely produced drama in which a family of gorgeous youngsters struggled to cope with the myriad uncertainties of life after their parents' abrupt death. This "unabashedly emotional" series, in the words of co-creator Christopher Keyser, took the pains of youth seriously, delving into such weighty issues as teen sex, drug use, menstruation, and death with nary a punch line or laugh track. Audiences in those pre-Dawson days had seen nothing quite like it before, and they were dazzled. When the parent network threatened to axe it for poor ratings, the huge outcry from the fans was actually loud enough to get the suits' attention—and Party of Five lived on for a total of six seasons, garnering a Golden Globe along the way. A pretty happy ending for a show whose characters suffered so much, so often, and so well.
Facts of the Case
When their parents are suddenly killed in a car accident, the Salinger children are left on their own. Eldest son Charlie (Matthew Fox, Haunted), at 24, is now the legal guardian, but he is both unused to adult responsibilities and reluctant to take them on, preferring the freedom of his carpentry work and a constant rotation of different women. In his stead, 16-year-old Bailey (Scott Wolf, Go) holds down the fort, taking responsibility for paying bills and looking after baby Owen, but he's beginning to chafe at the necessity of placing others before himself all the time. Star student Julia (Neve Campbell, Scream, The Company), at 15, has always been stable and studious, but recently she's begun to pull away from the others and from her former interests, experimenting with means of escape. Precocious 11-year-old Claudia (Lacey Chabert, Mean Girls), already a violin virtuoso, is full of questions and uncertainties that her older siblings are suddenly too busy or self-conscious to talk to her about.
The four eldest know that if they can't find a way to pay the bills, keep their grades up, and satisfy their social worker, they'll be separated—and they are determined to keep that from happening. Nevertheless, without their parents to see them through, they will have to blunder their way through rough times on their own, making mistakes and learning to live with the consequences. Sometimes it seems like all they can rely on is each other—and their tradition of meeting for a family dinner once a week at Salinger's, the restaurant their father owned.
Party of Five demonstrates right away that it's not going to insult our intelligence or do things by rote. In the pilot, we meet the Salingers six months after their parents were killed by a drunk driver; the show wisely skips right over the last sight of the parents alive, the scene in which the bad news is imparted, the initial shock and tears and howling of "why?" Since the focus of the series will be on how life goes on for the children (however awkwardly), it doesn't waste time by making us sit through the expected exposition. It cuts right to the chase—the period in which the kids are still mourning their parents but have become distracted by the minutia of trying to hold things together day by day. The basic situation on which the series is founded is also a particularly smart way of exploring the feelings of isolation that many young people experience—the sense that no one else understands what they're going through or can help them through it. With the absence of the parents, the young Salingers are truly left to figure things out for themselves, often by trial and error. Yet the primacy of family, even as their definition of family changes and expands, is central to the show as well, so that in the end, no matter how much they may pull away from each other, the siblings know they are lucky to be able to rely on each other for support.
The first season covers far too many interlacing plot arcs to describe individually; besides, a great deal of the show's addictive appeal is akin to that of a soap opera—watching as the characters' lives progress in often unexpected ways—and a show-by-show synopsis would destroy all the fun of being surprised. In just this first season characters find love, lose love, lose their virginity, get caught philandering, descend into alcoholism, suffer parental abuse, come out of the closet, and propose. Instead of breaking things down by episode, then, I'll focus on the characters that make the show so compelling.
Charlie. Mothers, lock up your daughters. This perpetually unshaven, shaggy-headed charmer with the sexy smile is eye candy for the twentysomethings in the audience. This first season watches him struggle to accept his new, unwanted status as head of the family, a struggle made all the more difficult since his siblings are familiar with his misspent past and refuse to take him seriously as a figure of authority. Charlie also has to reassess his values when he falls in love with the nanny, alluring grad student Kirsten (Paula Devicq), who refuses to settle for being the latest notch on his bedpost. His efforts to win (and keep) Kirsten's trust and to form a solid relationship with her go hand in hand with his attempt to shape a life for himself even as circumstances conspire to force him into the footsteps of his own father.
Bailey. Plucky, earnest, and compassionate. If DNA from Tom Cruise and Christopher Reeve were combined in a cloning experiment, this wholesome-looking heartthrob could be the result. Bailey's instinct is to take care of people, which causes his girlfriends to accuse him of being overprotective. His tendency to care for everyone else in the family also means that sometimes he tries to recoup on his selfless behavior by placing his own needs ruthlessly above everybody else's. Bailey has a fundamental sense of what's right, though, which sometimes comes into conflict with his best interests—not to mention his insatiable curiosity about sex. In this first season he hasn't yet begun to date the Jennifer Love Hewitt character (she will join the show in the second season), but his relationships with two very different girls over the course of this season—one frustratingly good, one dangerously out of control—put him through an emotional wringer and begin to alter his fundamentally giving nature.
Julia. Sensitive, willful, and vulnerable. As Julia, Neve Campbell makes squinting sexy and conveys with a fleeting smile all the euphoria and terror of adolescence. Her unconventional, heart-tugging beauty probably increased viewership exponentially among young men who wouldn't ordinarily have watched such a touchy-feely show. After attempting to run with a wilder crowd, Julia masquerades as a college student, gets a job at a bar, and catches the eye of an older man—but, as we all know, a relationship based on deception is just heading for trouble. Julia also has to come to terms with her changing feelings toward an old friend (Michael Goorjian) whom she has cruelly used in her need to drown her misery. Her fear that her mother will be replaced or her memory otherwise obliterated makes her hostile to change, and her desperate need for privacy is disrupted by the constant nagging presence of a little sister who's always underfoot. The absence of her mother means that she is particularly isolated; Bailey at least can take his girl troubles to Charlie, but Julia no longer has an older female confidante.
Claudia. The adorable moppet. Pointed of chin and spritelike in her energy and impudence, Lacey Chabert as Claudia is both exasperating and touching. Her confidence in her musical talent leads to fits of temperament and grandiosity, but at heart she's bewildered without parents to answer all her questions about life and give her the security—and discipline—she needs. Sometimes her attempt to handle tough situations on her own causes problems, as when she tries to imitate Julia's feminine wiles on a young male friend. Inquisitive and bright, she has a gift for speaking home truths and cutting to the heart of the sometimes overheated family discussions. But her waifish vulnerability is also a reminder—like the presence of baby Owen—that the Salinger siblings have serious responsibilities to take on in the absence of their parents.
Together with excellent recurring cast members and guest appearances by such reliable actors as Stephen Root and Gates McFadden, the cast convincingly evokes all the emotional turmoil of growing up, finding one's identity, and learning how to get through life as best one can in an unjust world. Performances are terrific all around, both touching and natural, and the actors project a sincerity that makes the show's unflinching look at life's emotional mine fields ring true. Once you get hooked, it's almost impossible to get through an episode dry-eyed. (Certainly it was impossible for the actors; as the co-creators note, every actor in the cast became expert in crying on command during the show's run.)
The look of this series was always beautiful, and its handsome DVD transfer captures both the clear, sunny outdoor vistas of San Francisco and the mellow lighting that creates such a warmly evocative atmosphere in indoor scenes. Aside from the deliberately hazy interior scenes, which occasionally show some grain in low light, the picture looks clean and attractive: The colors seem true, and every breathtaking close-up of Wolf, Campbell, and Fox can still make one's heart stop. (Especially in the case of Fox. Sigh.) Sound is likewise clear and well balanced, making effective use of the Dolby 2.0 surround, with the acoustic guitar cues particularly crystalline. Going by the quality of visual and audio presentation, this show might have aired yesterday instead of ten years ago.
The extras for this set are bountiful and a handsome reward for the loyalty of fans over the years. Best and biggest is the hour-long retrospective "Party of Five: A Look Back," which features interview footage of co-creators Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman and most of the main actors (Matthew Fox excepted). This jam-packed feature is divided into nine segments, each focusing on a different part of the series, such as its creation, its shaky start, the challenges of working with babies and dogs, and even the sound of the characters as dubbed into different languages. It's particularly interesting to learn that the network originally envisioned this show as a comedy, and it was Keyser and Lippman who decided to focus on the difficulties of a life without parents as opposed to the freedoms. There is footage from the audition tapes submitted by Chabert and Fox, and there are clips from early personal appearances by the cast members and their win at the Golden Globe awards. This feature is quite a nostalgia trip in that it takes us back to days when networks actually had enough faith in new shows to keep them alive long enough to develop a following despite initially poor ratings. The only problem with this well-constructed feature is that volume levels among the different film sources are inconsistent, and Keyser is always very difficult to hear.
A shorter 17-minute featurette, "Family Album," is largely redundant; even though the interview footage of the actors (this time featuring Fox) is different, Wolf repeats most of the same anecdotes, and the segment in which he is subjected to a mock quiz about his character seems like nothing more than filler. Nonetheless, it's nice to finally see Fox on camera discussing the show, and the co-creators return to share more insight. I do wish that both featurettes indicated when the interview footage was shot; my sense is that the footage from the longer "A Look Back" is older, and that the clips in "Family Album"—from which Campbell is absent—are more recent, but no context is provided for the interviews.
The strong sense of camaraderie that all the cast members describe as having characterized the making of the show comes across warmly in the cast commentaries, in which Fox, Wolf, and Chabert participate together. These commentaries (as well as those by co-creators Lippman and Keyser) accompany the pilot, the powerful Thanksgiving episode, and the season finale. Scott Wolf takes the lead in the cast commentaries, which are casual and appreciative, with frequent silences by the time they reach their last commentary. The commentaries by Lippman and Keyser are meatier and more informative: The two don't have any difficulty filling the time with anecdotes, inside information, and trivia. Their commentary on the pilot is particularly illuminating, as they discuss their perspectives on the main characters (such as their belief that Claudia is the smartest of the family) and the ways they deliberately attempted to defy audience expectations.
In the remaining extras, an assortment of trailers highlights film work by Campbell and Wolf and also includes spots for other television series. And, finally, an insert in the fold-out case gives brief synopses of all 22 episodes (spoilers included).
The Rebuttal Witnesses
When I was eighteen years old and first read Hamlet, I was engrossed, moved, and amazed at how much I had in common with the tormented young prince. He felt everything so keenly, so personally. At that age, everything about life mattered intensely to me, and I felt that I had found a kindred spirit. Over the years, however, as I gained more life experience, I began to see the pensive prince from a different perspective: as a self-indulgent whiner who needed to grow a pair and just do what needed to be done instead of hanging around bellyaching about his pain. (Never mind the fact that, had he done so, the play would have ended after Act One.)
Coming back to Party of Five was in many ways a similar experience. Watching the pilot at a remove of ten years, I found myself muttering "oh, grow up!" and "get over it!" at the beautiful, tormented Salingers. The characters who form the core of the series are still young enough to take everything with great seriousness, and the tone of the show fosters this earnest self-examination and heightened emotion. For viewers of the right age or place in life, this has a powerful draw—as I recall from when I first became a fan of the series. For those of us who have a slightly different point of view on life and relationships, however, it can sometimes be a bit much—a diet of constant fudge-drenched chocolate cake, which over time evokes a longing for a crisp, no-nonsense salad. The excellence of the acting and writing, and the compelling story lines, drew me back into Party of Five, but on occasion that jeering little inner voice would still pipe up to heckle the characters when, for the umpteenth time, they hurled impulsive hurtful words at each other or tearfully retracted them.
Perhaps the lesson is that, in television as in life, we can't ever recapture our lost youth and passion for life. Or perhaps it just means that a show this earnest can't help but bring out my inner cynic. Whatever the reason, I feel I should warn viewers out of their twenties that they too may experience some difficulty in identifying with the Salinger clan. If you're in doubt, I recommend renting the series before deciding to invest in it.
Groundbreaking and beautifully produced, Party of Five ushered in a new approach to television. It well deserves the handsome DVD treatment it receives here, and viewers who were too young to experience it the first time around now have the chance to discover why this series spoke so powerfully to so many. For others, it will be welcome as a poignant reminder of their own struggles into adulthood. Party of Five presents youth honestly, in all its tormented self-absorption, and in that respect it will never go out of date.
As much as the Salinger family enjoys wallowing in guilt, I can't find them guilty on this occasion. Columbia TriStar is commended for this quality set, and all parties are free to go.
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Scales of Justice
• Commentary by Actors Scott Wolf, Matthew Fox, and Lacey Chabert on Three Episodes
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