There’s a question asked out of cynicism when TV shows are rebooted, revived, reimagined, and however else one could describe the dozens of old series and intellectual properties that each year are brought back from the dead: What’s the point?
With Freeform’s new Party of Five, there’s a crucial one.
Premiering 20 years after the surprise hit Fox soap opera—which birthed Gen X idols Matthew Fox, Scott Wolf, Neve Campbell, and Jennifer Love Hewitt—wrapped, this update arrives with a timely, heartbreaking twist. In the original series, the five Salinger children find themselves orphans forced to raise each other after their parents are killed in a drunk driving accident. This iteration follows the Mexican-American Acosta children reeling after their parents are deported by ICE.
Javier and Gloria Acosta (Bruno Bichir and Fernanda Urrejola) are cradling their newborn fifth child, Rafa, while celebrating their precocious youngest daughter Val’s (Elle Paris Legaspi) latest academic achievement: she’s only in the seventh grade, but has advanced to ninth grade math. They are in the restaurant their family owns when ICE arrives.
As Val screams and Gloria passes off Rafa to the closest waitress, Javier and Gloria are arrested and taken to an ICE detention center, where they await their deportation date. Back at home, their children face the reality of life in Los Angeles not only as teenagers and young adults trying to find their way in the world, but as sudden guardians to an infant, and restaurant owners.
That means that the Acostas’ 24-year-old eldest son, Emilio (Brandon Larracuente), must put aside his rock-star dreams and, at least temporarily, habit of bedding groupies to step up as a father figure. Twins Lucia (Emily Tosta) and Beto (Niko Guardado) juggle their respective teenage identity crises with diaper duty and restaurant shifts. Val applies her whiz-kid math skills to doing the payroll, discovering along the way that the restaurant is nearly bankrupt.
The roles are all analogous to the characters of the original Fox series, which after earning designation as “The Best Show You’re Not Watching” in early low-rated seasons, grew to become one of the most popular nighttime soap operas of the ’90s, even earning a Golden Globe Award for Best Drama Series in 1996. The characters’ resistance and resignation to their new responsibilities were the constant as the series went on to tackle themes like alcoholism, domestic abuse, and cancer.
There are signs that this new Party of Five will incorporate character struggles outside the pain of parental loss, but at the forefront of the reboot is the undeniable urgency of its central concept.
After risking their lives on an August journey through the desert to cross the border, infant son in tow, the Acostas have been in the U.S. for 23 years. They have no other relatives in the U.S. They have owned a restaurant that has employed hundreds of people and have paid taxes the entire time. If they are deported, four children and a restaurant will become the responsibility of a 24-year-old, who himself is a DACA recipient. If the Dreamer’s status changes, the remaining Acosta siblings would be sent into foster care.
These are all points argued in favor of the family by the immigration lawyer Emilio hires on an unaffordable pipe dream after being dismayed by the pro bono attorney who can barely juggle his parents’ case among the hundred others he was assigned. It’s their hope that the judge will be swayed to grant an uncommon hardship exception, allowing the Acosta parents to stay with their children. “Unfortunately, heartbreak is anything but uncommon in these cases,” he replies.
The Acostas are deported. The farewell scene as the family is separated at the detention center is brutal, one of those haunting sequences that embeds itself in your pathos, lingering long after watching and triggering random bouts of devastation all over again. The high drama of these family separation scenes are largely confined to the first episode, but the series never lets you forget that the Acosta children’s lot and struggles are owed to the heartless immigration practice.
This is a case where it’s canny to attach a familiar property and title like Party of Five to a new, modern story, not only because the structure of the original lends itself so well to this timely twist, but because it garners eyeballs in a way that a new series might not have. At a time when we’re describing most series as “like if X show met Y show” or “like A series, but with B twist,” why not cut out the math and just slap the familiar title on the new show?
With specific regard to themes of immigration and the unique struggles of the Latin American community in the U.S., it's an approach that has worked wonders with Netflix’s reboot of Norman Lear’s One Day at a Time. That show follows the Cuban-American Alvarez family and the issues they encounter and happens to be one of the best and certainly most resonant comedy series on TV. (Bless Pop TV for saving the show after it was canceled by Netflix for the upcoming fourth season.)
It’s been vital and encouraging to see the ways in which television series have taken the cause of depicting this moment in history and how these communities deal with it. The approaches have been diverse, too. One Day at a Time is a multi-camera sitcom with a live studio audience. Orange Is the New Black tackled the issue with an unflinching, almost confrontational bleakness that was incredibly powerful. Here, Party of Five is filtering it through the lens of a soap opera.
There are certain tenets of the genre which are not for everyone: any number of clichés, definite melodrama, and an extreme earnestness that can at times be hard to palate. That latter bit is especially true with the series being right in line with the rest of the Freeform channel’s lineup of teen-oriented soap opera programming.
Once you accept that this is the audience the show is being pitched to, you can appreciate not only how well it’s being executed, but how important it is for this specific story to find a home alongside the channel’s splashy-salacious dramas about chic magazine writers and L.A. millennial romance and ennui. A fitting venue for an important party.