Party Of Five is the great forgotten drama of the ’90s

Party Of Five is the great forgotten drama of the ’90s

For most of the history of television, the barrier to syndication—and to profitability—has been 100 episodes. The shows that have made it to that mark are an unusual group. Many were big hits. Some found small cult audiences. Still others just hung on as best they could and never posted numbers quite low enough to be canceled. In 100 Episodes, we examine shows that made it to that number, considering both how they advanced or reflected the medium and what contributed to their popularity.

Take a look through the Golden Globe winners for Best Drama Series in the ’90s, and you’ll come across an oddity. The usuals are there: Twin Peaks. Northern Exposure. The X-Files. All three saw considerable success at other awards shows and continue to be at least somewhat popular with critics and viewers to this day. (Northern Exposure needs to get on a streaming service so the world can be reminded anew of its brilliance, but that’s another article.) And yet smack dab in the middle of The X-Files’ three wins is one of the most surprising TV awards upsets ever: In 1996, Party Of Five, a Fox drama struggling through a low-rated second season with cancellation rumors bedeviling it at every turn, won the Golden Globe for Best Drama.

Yet how often do people talk about Party Of Five nowadays? Though its entire run is available to stream on Amazon, the show almost never comes up when the great dramas of the era are discussed. Yes, its final two seasons are hugely problematic, overcome with the kind of melodrama the show kept tastefully tamped down in its first four years. And to be sure, this kind of hyper-earnest drama has largely passed from the airwaves since the rise of The Sopranos and its ilk. (Oddly enough, Robin Green and Mitchell Burgess, two of the most important producers on that HBO show, worked on Party Of Five in its fourth season.) But for the most part, Party Of Five has been forgotten because it’s become a synonym for a kind of TV that’s not cool anymore, dominated more by emotional reactions than high-stakes drama, filled with basically good people trying to do what’s basically the right thing. Party Of Five will turn 20 next fall, and it seems unlikely that birthday will carry with it the kind of celebrations The X-Files is seeing this year as that anniversary approaches.

In many ways, Party Of Five deserves to be better remembered for precisely the reason it has mostly been forgotten: It’s the culmination of a type of television that flared up briefly in the ’80s and ’90s, then mostly subsided in the face of antihero shows. This type of family drama, first brought to wide popularity via Marshall Herskovitz and Ed Zwick’s thirtysomething, tended to be about affluent white people, who mostly fretted about their emotions and connections to the other people in their lives. Herskovitz and Zwick used this formula on four seasons of thirtysomething, then applied lessons learned there to shows about characters in their teens (My So-Called Life), 20s (Relativity), and 40s (Once And Again). None of these lasted as long as thirtysomething, which still didn’t crack 100 episodes or see a lengthy run in syndication or cable reruns. 

The formula found more success when it was grafted onto other formats. Many of the workplace dramas of the ’90s, like NYPD Blue and ER, delved ever more deeply into their characters’ personal lives, while Northern Exposure took these quests for meaning and understanding and piled them atop a quirky small-town comedy (inventing a whole new genre in the process). Party Of Five, however, mostly played the home-set drama, in all its earnestness and occasionally cringe-worthy pathos, straight. There wasn’t a strong workplace element: Its central characters were responsible for a restaurant, rarely a good source of TV storylines. Although the comedy was there, the show’s struggles to attract an audience famously stemmed from how depressing it could be. And yet Party Of Five lasted six years, by far the most successful of the Herskovitz/Zwick direct descendants, and extended its run in cable syndication.

The reasons Party Of Five succeeded where many other thirtysomething clones failed are threefold. First, the show’s premise was more immediately gripping than thirtysomething’s, which was essentially “a bunch of yuppies live in Philadelphia and figure out what they want.” Centered on the Salingers, a family of five children, the show chronicled how they tried to take care of each other after the death of their parents in a car accident. Party Of Five straddled the lines of young-adult drama, offering up love triangles and tragedies for the Salingers in their late teens and 20s, and teen drama, with sweeter, smaller stories for the younger characters. Second, the show figured out fairly early on that it could successfully graft its premise onto a social-issues melodrama. With each season, the Salingers confronted the sort of small-scale problem—abortion, alcoholism, cancer, domestic violence—they might believably run into in real life. These issues gave the show a sense of external stakes other family dramas of its type sometimes lacked. And finally, Party Of Five was on the Fox of the ’90s, a network that had tasted success but was still uniquely willing to take chances on smaller, riskier shows for a season or two.

It was a slow build. The show’s first season lingered near the bottom of the Nielsens week after week, drawing raves from critics (including TV Guide’s “Best Show You’re Not Watching” at a time when that title still held weight) but largely ignored by mass audiences. For the most part, this was understandable. The first season is strong, particularly for a debut drama, but as conceived of by creators Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman, the show was very much about the siblings dealing with the grief following their parents’ death. Other storylines float in and out, but the bulk of the story involves the siblings learning to operate as a family unit without the two people who brought them into the world. The height of this approach is the deeply earnest “Thanksgiving,” which releases the drunk driver who killed the Salinger parents from prison, then has the four oldest siblings talk to him one by one, generally behaving like walking, talking Clinton-era time capsules, scored by acoustic guitar.

Watching that now may seem slightly ridiculous, especially removed from the context of the era in which it was made. But that clip reveals many of the show’s secret strengths. For one thing, the cast was stellar. To play the four oldest siblings, Keyser and Lippman found Matthew Fox, Scott Wolf, Neve Campbell, and Lacey Chabert, all of whom would go on to have significant careers elsewhere and all of whom almost immediately started acting like a semi-functioning family unit. They were able to take the show’s stabs at quirkiness (like Chabert’s character, Claudia, living in a pup tent in the living room) and make them feel organic, and they looked eerily like they might be related, adding a verisimilitude that’s hard to quantify. (Keyser and Lippman’s eye for strong casting ran down to the smallest of guest roles, and they even found Jennifer Love Hewitt right before she became the late ’90s crush of every teenage boy.) But the show’s dialogue also gave the cast plenty of strong material. Notice how the opening lines of the episode overlap in fun ways, how the conversations dovetail over each other and sound more like the real cacophony of a house with four kids and a baby living in it. It’s not Robert Altman or anything, but it was sophisticated for the TV of the time.

The problem was that this storytelling approach was almost too small-scale. If you didn’t care about the Salingers, then there was no good reason to keep watching. If you did, then watching them work through their grief—no matter how TV-friendly that grief might have been—could be tough. Plus, as much as it gave the show a premise to build from, becoming an orphan was harder for young-adult viewers to relate to than the future issues the show would tackle. The show brightened considerably after “Thanksgiving,” offering up potential new love interests for Fox, Wolf, and Campbell, but it could never quite overcome the way its premise overshadowed everything else that came in touch with it.

Party Of Five found its true strength in the second and third seasons. The orphan material mostly behind it, the show could deal more fully with its characters. In the second season, Hewitt was brought in to offer a love interest for Wolf’s character, Bailey, while Fox’s character, oldest brother Charlie, was engaged to the pretty nanny (Paula Devicq) who had joined the clan in the previous season. The stories revolved less around the family itself and more around the sorts of things they would come in contact with in their day-to-day lives. These seasons also subtly built two strong character-related story arcs. First, Charlie’s fiancée struggled with crippling depression, which wasn’t made any better by Charlie getting cold feet on their wedding day. In the aftermath of that fiasco, Charlie took off, leading a distraught Julia (Campbell) to fall into bed with her boyfriend. (The show, in general, was incredibly realistic about teen sexuality and drinking.) The two eventually became pregnant, and in a standout episode, Julia decided to have an abortion—though the show chickened out (at the behest of its network) and had her have a miscarriage on the way to the clinic. It was a powerhouse showcase for Campbell, always the show’s secret weapon, and it somehow found a way to both have Julia make the choice to have an abortion and explain why so many people might have such a problem with that.

If viewers have time to watch only one season, they should watch the third—the height of Party Of Five—in isolation from all the others. Throughout the first two seasons, the show had established that Bailey liked to have a drink or two, but it very organically—and mostly in the background—showed him drinking more and more as time went on. A series of bad breaks in his life (being forced to attend a less-acceptable college, a breakup with his girlfriend) led him to turn increasingly to alcohol, as the show subtly built one of the most consistent and powerful addiction arcs in television history. The culmination was “The Intervention,” an episode more like a stage play than anything else, with the Salinger family primarily confined to their house, trying to talk Bailey into going to rehab. The setup allows Bailey to be desperately ugly, leading to an incredibly interesting choice at the episode’s end: Bailey sets off on his own after the intervention has failed almost completely.

The scene that opens that clip—the family pressuring Claudia to call up her brother and lie to trick him into coming to the intervention—is the kind of thing Party Of Five did so effectively when it was at its best. It was emotionally messy and occasionally dark, yet shot through with a sense that all of these people really did love each other. “Intervention” was the show’s high point, and Wolf’s acting in it is a strong reminder of just how good every member of the cast was, even the ones who were seemingly cast just to end up on the cover of entertainment magazines. Even Hewitt, who’s never been as good since, was solid within her limited character, to the degree that Fox actually greenlit a misbegotten spinoff featuring her character and her character only (Time Of Your Life).

“Intervention” and “Before And After” (the abortion episode) work so well because they boil the show down to its best essence, which was present from the first: two people who care about each other, in a room, talking in hushed voices about the contours of their emotions. For the first three seasons, particularly when Keyser and Lippman wrote a script, no other show on TV channeled this remarkably difficult skill quite so convincingly. The issues weren’t there to propel the drama; they arose organically out of the characters and their world. That’s the hardest kind of television to write, particularly when there are no obvious life-or-death stakes, but Party Of Five accomplished it. The show was gradually rewarded by the audience, with every season through the fourth rating higher than the last; by the fourth, it had become one of Fox’s top programs.

The fourth season is a mixed bag. It still has plenty of those great conversation scenes (like this one), but the “Charlie gets cancer” arc is occasionally unconvincing and ultimately doesn’t have a ton of bearing on the other characters like Julia's and Bailey’s stories did. In the fifth and sixth seasons, the wheels gradually came off the bus, the fifth season in particular miring the characters in unconvincing storylines: Charlie had a baby with a girl he’d dated briefly, he and Bailey fought over the custody of the family’s youngest sibling, and Julia got into a relationship with an abusive man that largely ran roughshod over her prior character development. The sixth season is a mild improvement over that, but the audience had checked out, and the show ended.

Those final two seasons likely tainted Party Of Five’s legacy (though an inferior final two seasons had less of a bearing on Northern Exposure’s ultimate reception), but that legacy has also been impacted by the simple fact of where the show landed in time. Unlike thirtysomething, one of those programs that changed television, Party Of Five was the culmination of a dramatic approach that almost immediately fell out of favor. The Sopranos’ impact was so seismic that these kinds of family-at-home dramas simply stopped being made. The closest thing to them on the air right now is ABC Family’s Switched At Birth, and while it’s very good, it’s not exactly a mass-market show, nor one that seems likely to win the Best Drama Series award at the Golden Globes. For better or worse, Party Of Five is remembered for its cast, rather than the other elements that made it as good as it was. Keyser and Lippman got a few other shows on the air—and worked on Lone Star, of all things—but they never again had a success at this level. The show’s other producers saw similar fates, rarely filtering out to the kinds of dramas that dominated awards shows or the TV landscape in the years to come.

Something has been lost, though, in the fact that we have 10 million shows influenced by The Sopranos, and only one or two influenced by Party Of Five. Stories about real people, living real lives, no matter how laughably earnest they might seem, are necessary for the lifeblood of any medium. Party Of Five wasn’t perfect, and it could be a bit much to take in its insistence that we care deeply about everything it presented, but it was incredibly committed to building a world not driven by murder or calamity or death. It believed the biggest disasters could be emotional ones, and for four years, it found a way to make that compelling, sadly forgotten TV.

Next time: Ben Casey

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