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Party of Five: The Complete First Season

Although it's usually credited with kick-starting the teen-oriented TV glut that saturated the prime-time schedules of the smaller networks during the late '90s, Party of Five might just as well have aided in the same networks' current proclivity for (still teen-heavy) family-oriented dramas like Seventh Heaven, Everwood, and The Gilmore Girls — although few of its successors in either genre can claim quite so tragic a originating premise. The series begins six months after the five Salinger children (Charlie, 24; Bailey 16; Julia, 15; Claudia, 11; Owen, 1) were orphaned by a fatal car wreck. With the most intense shock and grief at their loss behind them, the remaining Salinger clan is just beginning to cope with the overwhelming struggle of getting through each day without parental guidance. Party of Five's success with fans and critics was not always shared by the suits at the Fox network; for most of the first season, and halfway through the second, the show was in danger of cancellation, until it unexpectedly picked up a 1996 Golden Globe for Best TV Drama, beating out "NYPD Blue," "Chicago Hope," and "E.R." (it eventually ran full six seasons from 1994-2000). It's not difficult to see why the show struggled in the ratings, with its fairly ordinary laundry-list of teen-series subplots — boyfriends, girlfriends, teen sex, friends with drug problems, friends with abusive homes, sibling rivalries, the obligatory background character with AIDS — none of which are handled with any memorable measure of distinction. All the same, it's easy to see why the show endeared itself to a small number of loyal fans, with its extraordinary principal cast and their expertly devised characters, who, despite some relatively uninspired writing and directing, bring the show's more unusual circumstances into sharp, if artless, focus. Matthew Fox is excellent as the oldest, Charlie, who is reluctantly yanked out of his undisciplined post-college haze of irresponsibility and womanizing and forced by tragedy into assuming the role of guardian for his four younger siblings, the oldest three of whom treat his authority with suspicion and derision. Charlie desperately clings to his immaturities and narcissism, while also carelessly throwing himself into his new responsibilities, trying too rashly to conquer the natural adulthood that was stolen from him. Scott Wolf, as 16-year-old Bailey, is the self-doubting Charlie's perfect foil: intensely sure of himself and fiercely naive, and always in danger of undercutting his self-righteous sense of being with his overpowering teenage male libido. Wolf plays Bailey with the clarity of purpose and the commitment to his emotions of a made-for-TV Tom Cruise (there's even a joke in one episode about Bailey's frequent resemblance to the movie star), making this vastly imperfect overachiever the anchor of the series; he is both what every parent would want from their teenage son and what they fear he could turn into. In contrast with the key male characters, the two Salinger daughters are less effectively wrought, although Neve Campbell plays 15-year-old Julia, who blossoms from a troubled wallflower, with the charisma of a sure-fire star, mitigating her part in many of the show's most ludicrous subplots.

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The magic of Party of Five depends on these three actors eliciting audience empathy despite frequently pedestrian material. It's a great feat of ensemble casting and performance. The most difficult of the major characters is the precocious (when is a TV pre-teen not precocious?) Claudia (Lacey Chabert), who veers wildly from prematurely wise woman-child to gratingly shrill spoiled brat. Although Chabert plays the part perfectly (too perfectly, at times), she alone is responsible for almost all of the show's humor for the first half of the season, which is a tall order for such a heavy premise, and the writing staff churns out some particularly awkward, terrible material for her, which is clumsily over-directed with a heavy-handed sense of "wackiness." It's not until Michael Goorjian joins the regular cast as Julia's smart, funny, and sensitive boyfriend that the series begins to hit its stride, and the casual levity he introduces is a welcome change of tone (as is the lack of melodrama promised by his stable character). Also good from the supporting cast is Megan Ward as Bailey's self-destructive girlfriend Jill, who may as well have been a template for Kirsten Dunst's character in Crazy/Beautiful, but Ward underplays the role with great control. Some of the other supporting casting, however, is abysmal, including the odd and off-putting Paula Devicq, who would incomprehensibly last most all of six seasons as Charlie's difficult love interest, Kirsten. Fans of the series' biggest breakthrough star, Jennifer Love Hewitt, will be disappointed to learn that her character, Sarah Reeves, does not join the cast until Season Two. As first seasons go, Party of Five makes more than the usual stumbles in tone and purpose as it finds itself, and is occasionally overwhelmed by its attraction to tragedy. But with some strong conceptualizing, it sets a decent foundation for a family series that would get better before it gets worse. All 22 episodes of Party of Five: The Complete First Season are presented by Columbia TriStar in a five-(naturally)-disc set, which also includes a featurette on the first season, including interviews with the shows creators, Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman, as well as Wolf, Campbell, Chabert, and Devicq. There is also a 16-minute "Family Album" that also includes some screen tests and more interviews. Keyser and Lippman both offer commentary on alternate audio tracks for the first, last and Thanksgiving episodes, as do, on another track on those same eps, cast members Chabert, Wolf and Fox. All episodes are presented 1.33:1 full frame, with Dolby Digital 5.1 audio. Five-disc foldout digipak with paperboard slipcase.
—Gregory P. Dorr

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