Party of Five has just raised the bar on TV reboots. Back in the 1990s, when it became a defining Fox drama, Party of Five stood out for its willingness to take on tough issues that Gen Xers were dealing with: drug addiction, HIV, teen pregnancy, things like that. Plus there was a novel twist. Many sitcoms featured kids being raised by a single parent, but in Party of Five the Salinger siblings had to raise themselves after their parents both died in a car crash.
For the reboot, which has its premiere tonight on Freeform, there’s a simple, ingenious, attention-getting tweak. This time around the parents aren’t dead, but they are permanently separated from their children thanks to the U.S. Government — as in ICE agents, doing what ICE agents do a lot of these days, breaking up families. In any other age, this monstrous act would be universally condemned, but thanks to the current political climate it has become yet another wedge issue. Television has done a lot of growing up since the original Party of Five, so give credit to Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser, the creators of the show and this reboot, for finding a hot-button issue that is still glowing red.
Early adopters of the original Party of Five were crucial to keeping it on the air. Fox had no faith in the show, scheduling it on Monday nights opposite football on ABC and Murphy Brown on CBS. And though it had more viewers in 1995 than an episode of Evil does today, Party of Five was considered “low-rated.” It survived to a second season largely thanks to the advocacy of its passionate fans. If any of them tune in for the reboot (which is a big if, given that it airs on a channel their teenagers mostly watch), they’ll be pleasantly surprised that Keyser and Lippman have largely kept the roles of each character on the show as they were in the original.
The only difference is the names. This family is Acosta, not Salinger. Javier and Gloria Acosta crossed the Mexican border illegally many years ago. It’s an origin story they told so often that their kids can recite it by heart — arriving in the U.S. with “two bags, a $50 bill, and a Spanish-to-English dictionary.” Now Javier (Bruno Bichir) and Gloria (Fernanda Urrejola) own and operate a Mexican restaurant, while providing for four kids and a newborn.
As happens in Los Angeles, ICE agents show up unannounced, demanding papers. Javier is tipped to this with enough time to get his unprotected employees out of the kitchen. When ICE appears in his restaurant, however, they have a surprising request.
“We’re not here for your employees, Mr. Acosta,” says the agent, “we’re here for you.”
Besides trying to give their kids a better life, the Acostas have strived to give their kids an American life. Not much Spanish is spoken at home. And far from driving their oldest, Emilio, to pursue a high-paying career and “make the family proud,” Gloria and Javier allow him to try making a living as a musician, fronting a band called the Natural Disasters. It doesn’t get any more Yankee Doodle than that.
As fans of the first Party of Five will notice, Emilio (Brandon Larracuente) is patterned after Matthew Fox’s character Charlie Salinger, an adult child supremely unprepared for the burden that’s about to fall on him. Likewise, the family’s second-oldest, Beto (Niko Guardado), is patterned on Scott Wolf’s Bailey Salinger. Though just a teenager, he seems to have a better read on things than his older brother, who begins his first day as head of household by issuing orders to the others.
“Oh, shut up with you being the parent, Emilio,” Beto finally says. “You want to take care of us? Go to work. Being a musician is not a job. Suck it up and go run the restaurant like mami and papi.”
One thing I liked about the original Party of Five was how the kids were forced to deal with problems without any guidance from their elders. They didn’t always make good choices — Bailey got hooked on drugs, Julia (the wonderful Neve Campbell) got knocked up, even precocious Claudia (the irresistible Lacey Chabert) struggled at times. But in those pre-helicopter-parent days, that’s what we did, dammit. We figured it out. I love the way that can-do spirit is infused throughout the new Party of Five as well.
And yes, these kids make poor choices too. In the first episode, Lucia begins acting out, telling off her teacher at school, then throwing a wild party at home. Think back to your teen-rebel years. What if the only repercussions were from your siblings? Sure, mami and papi check in via Facetime to see how everyone’s doing and dish out a little parental advice, but nobody has to listen to it. Javier and Gloria have no power over their kids — ICE saw to that.
Time will tell if the young actors playing the Acosta children will break out like the five leads in Party of Five did (that included Jennifer Love Hewitt, who played Bailey’s girlfriend and eventually got her own spinoff show). But Emily Tosta, who plays Lucia, is a standout in the first episode of the reboot.
So many moments in Party of Five are overshadowed by the brutal reality of the family’s capricious separation. As they are preparing to be deported, Javier tells Gloria that she must leave the baby behind as well. “He is an American,” he says, meaning that he’s entitled to protections and privileges that he wouldn’t have if he came with them to Mexico.
Gloria is stunned. If Lucia had gotten pregnant, “we’d be devastated,” she says — and yet, this is precisely what Javier is asking Lucia to do, become a teen mom. In the end, Gloria relents, and the result is a heart-wrenching scene the likes of which no documentary, not even the very fine immigration docuseries Living Undocumented, can replicate.
There are a lot of shows getting reboots that maybe shouldn’t (Roswell, really?). But this is a timely and smart retelling of a unique story about children coming of age in a modern, mixed-up world without their parents to rely on. While watching I kept asking myself, as I imagine many viewers will as well — what if this were my family?
Party of Five is streaming on Hulu and the Freeform app. Its TV premiere is tonight at 9:00 PM ET on Freeform.
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Aaron Barnhart has written about television since 1994, including 15 years as TV critic for the Kansas City Star.
TOPICS: Party of Five (2020 series), Freeform, Amy Lippman, Brandon Larracuente, Bruno Bichir, Chris Keyser, Elle Paris Legaspi, Emily Tosta, Fernanda Urrejola, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Lacey Chabert, Matthew Fox, Neve Campbell, Niko Guardado, Party of Five (1994 series), Scott Wolf, Revivals