'Party of Five': TV Review

The rare brand reinvention with a clear and urgent purpose.
1/8/2020

The original creators of 'Party of Five' give their coming-of-age Fox soap a modern immigration twist in a Freeform remake.

Freeform's remake of the '90s Fox drama Party of Five may not be the best in a wave of IP-grabbing updates, but it has something going for it that may be more important: Unlike so many nostalgia-fueled retreads, where the only creative imperative seems to have been, "We own the title Magnum, so let's do something with it" or "We already know Full House fans have low standards," there appears to have been a justification to offer a fresh spin on Party of Five — one that leverages the basic premise, but barely panders to the original audience, for better or for worse.

Original creators Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser return for this Party of Five, joined by pilot co-writer Michal Zebede. The San Francisco-based Salingers have become the Acostas, a comfortable Los Angeles family with a secret. While Javier (Bruno Bichir) and Gloria (Fernanda Urrejola) have carved out a solid middle-class life for their five children, complete with a successful family restaurant, their arrival in the country was not technically legal and, as the series opens, an ICE raid has the elder Acostas facing deportation.

That means that it's up to Brandon Larracuente's Emilio, an aspiring musician with DACA eligibility, to look out for siblings Beto (Niko Guardado), well-meaning but perhaps lacking in book smarts; straight-A student Lucia (Emily Tosta); precocious-but-youthful Valentina (Elle Paris Legaspi); and baby Rafael. But really they're all going to have to find a way to raise each other.

The kids and their attributes align fairly directly with the Fox original's — Emilio is Charlie, Beto is Bailey, Lucia is Julia, Valentina is Claudia and Rafael is Owen — and the core conflict is similar, but it's easy to see how this interpretation is vastly more of-the-moment than the Salingers losing their parents to a drunk driver. The revised inciting event still forces the Acostas to grow up quicker, with the added wrinkle that Javier and Gloria are still in the picture, so much so that the siblings wonder if too-regular Skyping with their parents might be preventing them from moving forward.

The series could stand to be more consistent in how the parents are depicted after the pilot — I prefer when they're shown only on phone/tablet screens to when the camera is actually in Mexico with them — but I like the variation on the dynamic in which there's a gaping hole in the family's life, without a loss of hope. The series makes at least some effort to consider how traditional gender roles in Latinx families might impact the family's dynamic.

Lippman and Keyser's approach to immigration is unquestionably ideological — the series is not, you'll be surprised to know, in favor of splitting up families — without being partisan. Through the three episodes sent to critics, the name "Donald Trump" is never mentioned. There are no jokes about the wall, no nods to either political party. There's some effort to bring a layer of realism to the legal quagmire the Acostas find themselves in and that's a relief after a fall in which one broadcast show after another did only cursory lip service to ICE-related plots. For all that the show's sentiment might point to this separation being an injustice, a secondary character gives an uninterrupted monologue on the importance of immigrating the correct way.

I doubt that will supersede the emotional swells of a pilot in which red-eyed parents are forcibly pulled away from their sobbing children as music plays. The pilot for the new Party of Five isn't subtle and it's a small relief when subsequent episodes begin to move in slightly less manipulative directions (though if your memory is that the original series wasn't manipulative, your youthful crushes on Matthew Fox, Scott Wolf or Jennifer Love Hewitt may be clouding your hindsight). The immigration story doesn't go away, but the family's adjustments make room for love triangles, various teenage rebellions and financial drama aplenty. The more conventional and soapier parts of the series are a release valve, even if they also cause those arcs to feel much less adventurous than the material mined in Freeform shows like Switched at Birth or The Fosters.

In addition to tending toward mawkishness, the Rodrigo Garcia-directed pilot also has a strange roughness to it and viewers watching the first episodes back-to-back, as Freeform will premiere them, might notice how much better styled and photographed all of the stars are and how much more comfortable they all are in front of the camera. Is this a product of speedy maturation or just a rushed pilot? Unclear. Larracuente and Guardado in particular are more at ease as episodes progress, with Tosta and Legaspi finding ways to remain precocious without being robotic. It's a good, if not instantly remarkable, ensemble of young performers and Bichir and Urrejola add seasoning.

Some viewers are likely to feel that some of the dramatic purity of the original — the day-to-day grief and coping — has been lost in favor of the more tangible call to action of the immigration plot. I can see that, but I'm much more appreciative of Lippman and Keyser having a sense of purpose beyond milking the Party of Five brand.

Cast: Brandon Larracuente, Emily Tosta, Niko Guardado, Elle Paris Legaspi, Bruno Bichir and Fernanda Urrejola

Creators: Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser

Episodes air Wednesdays at 9 p.m. ET/PT on Freeform, starting Jan. 8.