Friday, December 4, 2009

Christmas TV Episode #2: "Party of Five"

2.) "Party of Five" 3.13 Christmas (Watch it now on

"Party of Five" is a type of drama that doesn't really exist anymore. It's about family, and I can't really name any shows on right now that deal with and try to understand the same types of messages and situations that "Party of Five" excavates each and every episode. Off the top of my head, I come up with "Supernatural," which does sort of deal in some heavy familial issues, but the Winchesters are only two brothers, and they don't keep a home, and they don't have to deal with paying the bills or taking care of younger siblings. They don't live in the sort of mundane reality that resembles our own. They're almost like superheroes, so it's not the same. There's "Friday Night Lights," which does give us a sort of close examination of the Taylors and their home life. We get a lot of their dynamics as a family and their situation in Dillon, TX, but "FNL" is still one of those multi-POV shows, like "Mad Men" and "The Wire," and whole episodes will pass without addressing real familial conflict at all. That doesn't make it any less of a show, it just makes it a different type of show than "Party of Five," which is a show about family in the most unrefined sense of what that word, family, and what family really means. And what family really means is not something I'll attempt to list for you here on my TV blog. It's a million things, big and small, and this episode, I think, is one of the most nuanced examples of what this show can really do as a drama about family, and the emotional gravity it can achieve without feeling entirely sentimental and overwrought.

"Party of Five," in case you don't know, premiered in 1994 and was actually supposed to be cancelled during its second season due to low ratings. Fox kept it around, however, after it won the Golden Globe for Best Drama in 1996, and the show then aired for six seasons until 2000. It never really did do well in the ratings, but then again, most compelling dramas don't. Again, I refer to "Friday Night Lights," which is, I think, the best show on television right now, and nobody watches it. Don't ask me why. Anyway, "Party of Five" is about the Salinger family, five brothers and sisters whose parents were killed in a drunk driving accident about nine months before the time period of the pilot. Charlie (Matthew Fox), Bailey (Scott Wolf), Julia (Neve Campbell), Claudia (Lacey Chabert), and Owen (he's the baby--so multiple actors) live together in their parents' house, and the show is about them dealing with the tribulations of, not only growing up, but of growing up without their parents. They learn to depend on each other in ways they didn't know they could, and they also learn that they can hurt each other. I think "Party of Five" is particularly deft in how it captures sibling rivalry without ever forgetting its characters or letting things come to cliche. I always say that sibling dynamics are the hardest to write. The writers on this show, however, really get it.

"Party of Five" deals in quite a few heavy-handed themes (alcohol abuse, depression, cancer, teen pregnancy), but unlike a lot of other family-geared shows of the era, "Party of Five" never really gives off that "Tonight, on a very special episode" vibe. Instead of relying on the audience to sort of insert their generic understanding of these larger issues, or other smaller, family-related issues, "Party of Five" localizes them to the Salinger family, and instead of sort of talking to us, the audience, or into some void that I like to call the Danny Tanner Void (You know, when he sits the girls down and gives them this generic, all-encompassing lecture that could really apply to anyone, and so it is lost?), the characters talk to each other. They lecture and listen to each other. They argue, and there's always agenda going on--no character is ever lost at the expense of message. Plus, the acting is impressive. Some of the greatest moments, and the greatest performances in this show belong to a young Lacey Chabert, whose monologues often have the ability shake me loose and bring me to tears. She doesn't have one in Christmas, but she does share a couple poignant scenes with Charlie, one particularly poignant interaction toward the end, and it really is one of those things. She goes outside to the porch, looking for "somewhere where no one else is," which is such a lovely notion, really, when you think about what it must be like to live in a house so full of people. On the porch, she finds Charlie. "It doesn't really feel like Christmas in there," she says to him, and then there's a certain honesty in her voice and on her face as she's talking to her much older brother about things like happiness and what it means to have something of your own in this world, and there's such sadness, such wisdom for such a young girl to possess. You can't help but believe her.

This episode, unlike some of the others on this list, really feels Christmassy. It's not without its conflicts, though, as a major discovery about Grandpa Jake leaves us weak with worry, and Charlie's inherent optimism, his constant search for a life and goals of his own, are thwarted, once again, by things beyond his control, and Bailey's apathy is beginning more and more to resemble alcoholism, and Julia and Claudia, the women of the house, feel that their family, torn in so many ways, is sort of hanging by a thread and that there's nothing they can do to save it, and there's a real hopelessness here that you can feel, but it's Christmas. Grandpa comes over, and these conflicts are not defused, but they're sort of laid down one by one, tucked away just for the night, and the episode ends with Julia and Claudia, cleaning up after dinner, singing "Have Yourself a Merry Little Christmas" in a perfect, perfect scene that, in any other show would go completely unearned.

I really miss "Party of Five," because like I said before, there's really nothing like it, and I wish Sony would just release seasons 4-6 on DVD already. I'd buy it all in a heartbeat.

UP NEXT: #1! Wait for it...

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