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Tuned In: It's your 'Party'; cry if you want to

Wednesday, May 03, 2000

By Rob Owen, Post-Gazette TV Editor

Get out your hankies.

There's one last cry to be had before "Party of Five" disappears into rerun ether.

After five years of parental death, almost marriages, miscarriages, births, divorces, alcoholism, cancer, institutionalization, spousal abuse and custody battles (not necessarily in that order), the "Party" ends tonight at 8 on WPGH.

At one time, the cancellation of "Party of Five" would have caused outrage. Now it's merely a sense of relief that the show will end before the actors start jumping ship ("Party of Three" doesn't have the same ring) and before the plots become even more outlandish. How many bad things can happen to one family?

But even though the show could be maudlin, watching it often provoked authentic reactions.

Most critics, myself included, were latecomers to the "Party," spending most of its first season ignoring "Party of Five" and instead carping at ABC for its mishandling of "My So-Called Life." But once "Life" ended, many of us found time to get to know the Salingers. I'm glad I did.

Although Fox pressed creators Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser for a more raucous hour -- the parents are dead, let's show the kids partying! -- the pair stuck to their initial vision.

"Party of Five"

When: Tonight at 8 on Fox.

Starring: Scott Wolf, Neve Campbell, Matthew Fox


"Party of Five" was about family in all its varied forms. Tangential family members came and went -- including a grandpa (guest star Carol O'Connor), Salinger's restaurant manager Joe and Claudia's violin teacher, Ross -- but the five Salinger kids, orphaned when their parents died in a car wreck, stayed together. Until now.

Tonight's farewell (two episodes edited together) finds the Salinger clan facing difficult choices as opportunities call Bailey, Julia and Claudia away from the clan's San Francisco home.

"The truth is, we've stayed together so much longer than most families," Charlie (Matthew Fox) says. "We've taken care of each other so much longer, and it's gotta be OK for us to take care of ourselves now. ... We've survived so much more than distance. Distance is nothing."

Truthfully, they stayed together too long to sustain the quality of "Party of Five's" early years. Tonight's episode, written by Lippman and Keyser, may be a touching send-off for die-hard fans, but it can't compare to the show's best episodes.

"Party of Five" reinforces my theory that most dramas can only maintain their initial quality for about four seasons. There are exceptions, but without an infusion of fresh writing talent that can maintain whatever elements made the show great while also taking it in new directions -- a tricky task -- most dramas would do well to go out sooner rather than later. Network greed won't allow that, of course, which is why we'll probably have another season of "The X-Files."

"Party of Five" reached its emotional crescendo near the end of season three when the family staged an intervention, confronting Bailey (Scott Wolf) about his drinking problem. His descent into alcohol abuse wasn't that uncommon for a prime-time drama, but the reaction of his family, particularly Claudia (Lacey Chabert), was unique.

In the most moving scene of the six-year series, Claudia tremulously confessed to Bailey that of all her siblings, he was her favorite. She didn't want to see him hurt himself any longer. It was an unapologetic moment of raw emotion, and one of the most heartfelt displays of sibling compassion and love ever seen on a TV drama.

Just after "Party of Five" hit this high point, the show started down a path that would lead to the its decline. Teasing fans with the Charlie-Kirsten (Paula Devicq) relationship was one thing (they finally married early this season), but hurriedly marrying off Julia (Neve Campbell) to dimwit Griffin (Jeremy London) was mistake No. 1 in a litany of plot errors.

Even more ridiculous than the union itself, Griffin stayed a part of the series after he and Julia divorced. In tonight's finale, Griffin says, "Truth is I should have moved out of here a long time ago." Finally, the dumb guy says something smart.

At times even Sarah (Jennifer Love Hewitt) seemed to be hanging around for no reason, except maybe to wait for her own series. (The stillborn Sarah spin-off, "Time of Your Life," returns this summer).

After Bailey's alcoholism, "Party of Five" made a concerted effort to spread the angst around so every actor got an opportunity to dramatize a disease (Charlie's cancer) or societal problem (Julia's abusive relationship with Ned).

The Charlie-has-cancer story tried to live up to Bailey's alcoholism, but it never did. Then he married that unstable stripper and they recast Owen, the youngest Salinger, and I quit watching.

Consequently, I'm not particularly sad to see the show go. "Party of Five" did its part to elevate the Generation X television genre to quality status, but as is so often the case, this "Party" went on too long.

Rob Owen can be reached at 412-263-2582 or rowen@post-gazette.com. Post questions or comments about TV to www.post-gazette.com/tv under PG Online Talk.

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