PARTY OF FIVE (Production Design by Randal Groves) is Both Nostalgically Sweet and Bracingly Current
January 8, 2020

by Jen Chaney, Vulture

In some obvious and timely ways, the Freeform update of Party of Five looks very different from the original Party of Five, which ran for six seasons on Fox in the 1990s. The new show, debuting on Wednesday night, is set in Los Angeles, not San Francisco. Its central family, the Acostas, are middle-class and Mexican-American, not white and well-off enough to live in a massive Victorian in Pacific Heights. While the Salinger parents on the original show were killed by a drunk driver, leaving the oldest, Charlie, to take care of his four younger siblings, the Acostas were split via more contemporary, politically relevant circumstances: When ICE agents raid the family’s restaurant, the heads of the Acosta household (Bruno Bichir and Fernanda Urrejola) admit they don’t have papers and are taken into custody. Not long after, they’re deported to Mexico and are forced to leave their children under the care of their eldest, 24-year-old Emilio (Brandon Larracuente of 13 Reasons Why and Bloodline), who has DACA status.

Like the Salingers before them, the Acostas are de facto orphans. In a way, their situation is even more wrenching because their parents are still alive but are forced to live hundreds of miles away, leaving everyone in a state of potentially interminable limbo. They can’t fully move on, but they all have to move forward. It’s a circumstance that isn’t just the stuff of scripted television but is real and relatable for families who’ve been ripped apart by the Trump administration’s immigration policies — policies that inspired Amy Lippman and Chris Keyser, the creators of the original series, to frame this reboot the way they did.

Yet this new Party of Five is not overtly political. In the first three episodes Freeform provided for review, no one ever refers to President Trump or even the kids being held in cages at the border. The series simply shows us what it looks like when parents are ripped away from their offspring — a wrenching scene in episode one depicts that very moment — and the long-term ramifications that can have, especially on the younger members of the Acosta family. It also captures the sense of uncertainty that hangs over Charlie and the rest of his siblings; depending on what the government decides to do, the protection provided by his DACA status could erode at any moment, making the family vulnerable to further separation. When Valentina asks, as Claudia did before her, “Are they going to split us up?,” it’s a more complicated, heartbreaking question mark.

Make no mistake: All of this is political. But Party of Five humanizes the political and makes the audience see the deeply personal impact that the decisions made by the administration have on the lives of young people who are trying their best to do the right thing every day.

Is Party of Five a little heavy-handed at times? Yes, but so was the original. Party of Five made network-TV audiences weep on a weekly basis way before This Is Us turned its tearjerkers into a marketing calling card. But as in the original Party of Five, there’s a warmth and sincerity at the heart of the series that makes it very easy to warm to and emotionally invest in.

Keyser and Lippman, along with fellow executive producer Rodrigo Garcia, who directed the first two episodes, have used the first Party of Five as a jumping-off point in a way that is poignant and more thoughtful than most reboots are. The Party of Five title font, for example, has remained unchanged (the BoDeans, however, no longer provide the theme song). More significant, the characters are modeled after the 1990s-era five in key ways. Emilio, like Matthew Fox’s Charlie, is a reluctant, occasionally irresponsible guardian and a ladies’ man who isn’t prepared to father four kids who need his attention. Unlike Charlie, though, he has a dream of being a musician, which his attention to his family and the Acostas’ restaurant force him to put on hold.

Beto (Niko Guardado) is a high-school athlete who struggles with his grades. Like Bailey Salinger (played by Scott Wolf), he’s a good kid but is overwhelmed and is especially bonded to his younger sister, Valentina, in the same way that Bailey and Claudia (Lacey Chabert) were especially close. Unlike Bailey, Beto has a twin sister, Lucia (Emily Tosta), who is the new PoF’s version of smack-in-the-middle-child Julia (Neve Campbell). Lucia is an excellent student and overachiever whom no one ever has to worry about, until her parents are deported and her behavior begins to change.

Valentina (Elle Paris Legaspi), 12, is not a violin prodigy like Claudia was, but she is wise beyond her years and is more traumatized by the loss of her parents than anyone else in the family because she actually witnesses the moment when ICE first takes them into custody. The effects of trauma are more explicitly handled with her: She doesn’t sleep well, she becomes anxious at the mention of ICE, and she becomes addicted to talking to her mother on Skype.

There is also an infant Acosta, à la Owen Salinger, whose name is Rafa. In these early episodes, neither he nor the demands of caring for him are shunted to the side. Attending to him overnight, feeding him, arranging for child care — these are all issues the older siblings have to juggle, through the fog of just a few hours of sleep, on top of everything else. (I am sorry to report that there is no family dog. Shoutout to Thurber, who stands alone as the official Party of Five canine.)

One of the great strengths of the original was its cast, and the young actors in this version deliver solid performances too. Tosta is especially convincing and grounded as a young woman trying to navigate both high-school cliques and domestic conflict. As in the first time around, though, it will take more than three episodes to determine how deeply the actors are able to embody their characters. (The first Party of Five was at its absolute best in seasons two and three.)

Some of the plot points and scenes here mirror those in the original. Valentina throws an out-of-control party at the house, just like Julia did. Emilio starts dating a restaurant hostess that Beto hired and has a crush on, which echoes what happened with the nanny, Kristen, in the earlier show. There’s even a scene in the first episode in which Beto and Lucia have a heart-to-heart on the backyard swing set that echoes a conversation between Bailey and Julia nearly shot for shot.

Rather than seeming like a rehash of the past, however, these moments serve as a reminder that growing up, at its core, hasn’t changed so much since the 1990s — but this country has. America is a more diverse place now, and the concerns that many young people are forced to handle are far more fraught and urgent than they were three decades ago. The underlying message of this lovely series enables the audience to hold nostalgia and a bracing sense of reality in their heads and hearts all at once, and that’s a rare and special thing.

Production Designer: Randal Groves