A decade removed from the shelter of their collective heartthrob status, Party of Five’s Salinger family emerges more unlikable, but a lot more interesting.
Teens Bailey and Julia and 20-something Charlie were forced into parent mode after the untimely death of mom and dad. The elder Salinger progeny snipe and backbite; they treat their respective love interests like dirt and neglect younger sibs Claudia and Owen to a degree that begs for the intervention of a social worker.
All of that bad behavior was easy to ignore (and maybe even kind of hot) back in 1996, when their portrayers – Matthew Fox, Scott Wolf and Neve Campbell – were competing with the cast of 90210 for magazine covers.
Their antics are uglier to behold in 2008 — so are the flippy hairdos and grunge-tacular wardrobe. But the characters’ flaws turn out to be the series’ enduring strength.
On the surface, Party of Five has an element of teenage wish fulfillment – all of that freedom, no parental nagging. But the perks of a parent-free lifestyle begin and end with Bailey’s shiny black Jeep and the family’s dreamy San Francisco Victorian.
Season Three is particularly dark. Anyone familiar with the series likely remembers the dominant plot, Bailey’s downward spiral into alcoholism. Watching the season again, however, is a reminder that plenty of other bad things were happening while Bailey was hitting the bottle.
Charlie’s grating fiancé Kirsten spirals into depression, facilitating his hook-up with the equally joyless Grace. In the wake of Season Two’s pregnancy and subsequent miscarriage, Julia washes her hands of nice-guy Justin and hooks up with a series of unwashed losers. Kid sister Claudia (Lacey Chabert) grapples with home repairs and generally acts like a pest. And baby Owen? He could be spraying graffiti around the neighborhood for all the audience, or his family, knows; he’s barely seen on screen.
Watching these episodes more than a decade later, it’s no surprise that Fox became a star and Campbell’s career more or less stalled after Wild Things. Also clear is that somebody somewhere needs to find a Lost-like vehicle for Wolf.
Wolf’s challenge is to rise to meet a stellar story arc. Fox’s is to overcome a dismal one. Kirsten’s (Paula Devicq) despair is unbelievable in its melodrama, and Fox has almost no chemistry with Charlie’s rebound girl, homelessness advocate Grace (Tamara Taylor.) But the actor manages to keep Charlie interesting as a character caught between his adult responsibilities and innate childish selfishness.
Julia’s plots are equally irritating, but so is Campbell. The character is written as a top achiever in her senior class and a gifted writer. But Campbell doesn’t provide Julia with any of the depth she supposedly possesses. Julia is a confused complainer who seems determined to choose the worst possible guys to date.
Party of Five’s flaws are easy to forget, however, when the episodes focus on Bailey’s alcoholism. The seeds of Bailey’s downfall are planted early – he “breaks up” with his childhood best friend; ends up at a nowhere college, and moves in with the perfect enabler, the skanky, needy Callie.
But what that downfall will be isn’t clear until it happens. Suddenly Bailey, always the more responsible of the older Salingers, is a mess. He neglects his family obligations, ruins Owen’s birthday party, and cheats on neurotic girlfriend Sarah (Jennifer Love Hewitt before she became completely unbearable.)
All of the actors benefit from having a nuanced plot to tackle. This is particularly true in the episode that revolves around the rest of the family holding an intervention for Bailey. Each member of the family has a purpose and place, even Grace (she’s the Exposition Fairy who explains the concept of an intervention to the uniformed.)
The episode contains many of the same elements other series have used when a character is confronted about addiction – all of them, in fact, except one. At the conclusion, Bailey doesn’t admit he has a problem and he doesn’t willingly go off to spend summer hiatus in rehab. His problems continue, and the audience gets to see each tiny step toward recovery.
I watched this season when it first aired. I’m sure I engaged in a mental debate over which Salinger brother was cutest, or wished for a pair of super-cool overalls like Claudia’s or an endless supply of black T-shirts like Julia’s. But I don’t remember any of that, now. I did remember the alcoholism plot because it was the first time I’d seen the issue portrayed on television with that degree of detail.
Unfortunately, the positive attention heaped on Bailey’s fall convinced the minds behind Party of Five that the only sensible reaction was to do it again. Season Four is dominated (spoiler alert!) by Charlie’s fight with cancer, an interesting idea but complete overkill. In DVD-world, however, Party of Five, ends with Season Three, the series’ creative high point.