Back in 2006, The New Yorker published "Life Lessons," a short article about Population Communications International, and how the group used soap operas and radio dramas around the world to deliver positive messaging to combat poverty by normalizing things like contraception, female education, and the acceptance of people with AIDS. Obviously, the fact that I still remember the article more than a decade later indicates what an impact it had on me, and I always think of it when a show endeavors to deliver positive propaganda to its viewers. It's certainly been on my mind since the premiere episode of Freeform's Party Of Five, which my colleague Aaron Barnhart wrote about early last month.
Freeform has a long history of exposing its viewers to bold ideas their parents might not talk about at home, and giving visibility to individuals seldom seen on TV without making them feel like token characters. Switched At Birth filled a whole high school with Deaf students, some of whom were deeply suspicious about assimilating into hearing culture. The Bold Type opened a social media director's sexual horizons by having her fall in love with a Muslim lesbian. The Fosters, set in San Diego, featured multiple storylines about undocumented people facing deportation threats, which is also how original Party Of Five creators Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser have updated their story for the remake: whereas the Salinger kids in the '90s series were orphaned when a drunk driver killed their parents, the Acosta children are effectively orphaned when ICE deports their parents, who are undocumented.
It's impossible to live in the U.S. at this stage in history without being aware of how cruel current immigration policy is. But it's very different to read a newspaper article than it is to see every phase of the deportation process as it destroys a perfectly happy family. When sweet, proud parents Javier (Bruno Bichir) and Gloria (Fernanda Urrejola), waiting in the restaurant they own and operate for their children to join them for dinner, get a warning phone call from a neighboring pizzeria, we know what's coming. It's at this point that I burst into tears, and things only gets worse from there. Javier can't reason with the ICE agent. The lawyer the Acostas can afford has too many cases to defend them effectively. Their children don't know how to look after themselves. The detention center is like a prison. While the eldest Acosta child, Emilio (Brandon Larracuente), is the only one who isn't a minor, he is also undocumented, and though he currently has DACA status, life under the Trump administration and a majority-conservative Supreme Court means even that is precarious. He can talk his way into convincing a fancier lawyer to take his parents' case, but the Acostas' story isn't extraordinary, and the judge has no legal grounds on which to overrule the deportation order. So what is to be done with baby Rafa? Does he go to Mexico with his parents? Does he remain in the U.S. to claim his birthright as a native-born citizen? Javier and Gloria, devastated, make the wrenching decision to leave him with his siblings, and then they're called to their bus, and parents and children have to say goodbye on opposite sides of a chain-link fence. They might never live together again. In many ways, this is a best-case scenario: the kids have each other, a home, and a profitable business. But it's still horrible.
As the season has continued, Party Of Five has methodically laid out the challenges and concerns facing people in the Acosta kids' situation. Lucia (Emily Tosta) pleads with a teacher to reconsider a bad grade for her brother Beto (Niko Guardado), given their current crisis at home. Instead, the teacher pointedly draws a contrast between herself, a legal immigrant who did things "the right way," and Lucia's parents. So much for solidarity.
Valentina (Elle Paris Legaspi) is heartbroken to see that Gloria has taken a job as a nanny and housekeeper for a girl about her age. Gloria's new charge is lucky enough to have "Glo" as an extra mother, while Val has none. Lucia, as an American citizen, has the privilege of fearlessly raising hell whenever she detects an injustice... but befriending Matthew (Garcia), an undocumented runaway who won't renew his DACA status because he's trans, and doing so would require him to present a birth certificate that does not conform to his gender identity leads Lucia to try to secure his future by copying a deceased man's Social Security Number off of a hospital computer monitor for Matthew to use, illegally.
If any conservative viewers cared to give the show a shot, even they might find something in it to agree with. Gloria and Javier, as business owners — job creators, the most sainted among the "protected classes" in the conservative pantheon — were vulnerable to exploitation that citizens are not. The only way they could secure a liquor license for the restaurant without papers was to ask a favor of a neighboring restaurateur, who applied in his name in exchange for 30% of the bar tab for 16 years. If "taxation is theft" for people on the right-wing side of the political spectrum, surely that is too.
Party Of Five also expands its field of view to encompass people whose lives are constrained by government policies other than those regulating immigration. Oscar (Mann Alfonso), one of Javier's best and longest-serving employees, is a formerly incarcerated person who, when cash is skimmed, is suspected as the culprit. When Gloria casually admits that she was the skimmer, and was sneaking cash to Emilio while he was trying to make his band happen, Emilio's sincere apology to Oscar is his first real test as the restaurant's new manager. A recent episode also highlights the danger that still lurks in disadvantaged neighborhoods from lead paint when Rafa is accidentally poisoned at the home-based daycare he attends. Rafa's hospitalization coincides with the Acostas' first visit from Andrew Nichols (Scott Michael Campbell), the case manager Social Services has assigned to work with their family, and it is my very dear wish that the show depicts him as a positive force in the Acostas' life, and thus provides further positive propaganda for the extremely important and frequently soul-crushing job social workers do. (To quote The New Republic's Alex Pareene: "90% of what cops deal with should be handled by well-paid social workers and the FBI should be staffed by investigative reporters.")
January also saw another high-profile debut for a TV series revolving around immigration: the anthology series Little America on AppleTV+. While it's a very pleasant watch, only two of its eight episodes really acknowledge how American policy can limit immigrants' opportunities and divide their families for no justifiable reason. (One episode even depicts the story of a gay man leaving Syria, due to persecution by his relatives, for Boise — a happy ending not currently possible given the Trump administration's recently-expanded Muslim ban.) By contrast, Party Of Five is telling a story whose urgency is all the more admirable given the youth of its target audience. Could we be just weeks away from middle schools organizing Abolish ICE rallies and high school sophomores explaining to their parents why national borders aren't real? Anyone who's paying attention knows that current U.S. immigration policy is state violence. Lucia may not have learned that phrase yet, but I bet she screams it before this season of Party Of Five ends, and I can't wait for the children to hear it.
Party of Five airs Wednesday nights at 9:00 PM ET on Freeform.
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Writer, editor, and snack enthusiast Tara Ariano is the co-founder of Television Without Pity and Fametracker (RIP). She co-hosts the podcasts Extra Hot Great and Again With This (a compulsively detailed episode-by-episode breakdown of Beverly Hills, 90210), and has contributed to New York, the New York Times magazine, Vulture, Decider, Salon, and Slate, among many others. She lives in Austin.
TOPICS: Party of Five (2020 series), Freeform, Amy Lippman, Brandon Larracuente, Bruno Bichir, Chris Keyser, Elle Paris Legaspi, Emily Tosta, Fernanda Urrejola, Mann Alfonso, Niko Guardado, Scott Michael Campbell, Immigration and TV, Trump Presidency