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In 1994, the FOX network was looking for a show to compliment its very successful Beverly Hills 90210. It came up with the idea of a show where five siblings lived in a house without rules and without parents. Originally conceived as a light drama, by the time the show finished in development and aired it was much different. Running for six seasons, Party of Five in many ways redefined what a family drama was all about. Nearly cancelled after its first season, strong reviews from critics and an intense campaign from its viewers kept it going and it remained a FOX staple for six seasons.

The Series
On the surface, the premise for Party of Five appears a bit morbid. After their parents are killed by a drunk driver in a tragic accident, the five Salinger orphans have to find a way to move on and remain a family. The oldest, Charlie, is twenty four, and he is forced to move back into his parent’s home as the legal guardian of his four brothers and sisters. Never the most responsible one of the Salinger clan, he now finds that he has to be the acting father for the remaining family members. His brother Bailey has just turned sixteen and is a junior in high school. He feels as though he needs to always be the one watching out for everyone, and the one to fix all the problems. Next is Julia, in tenth grade, who is consumed with wanting to experience everything, whether she is old enough or not. Claudia is the youngest girl. At eleven, she, like her mother, is a violin prodigy. She is also like a typical eleven year-old. She is at times emotional and impulsive and at other times sweet and charming. She moves into a tent in the living room when Charlie moves back home. The final member of the family is one year old Owen, who becomes the centre of many of the character’s days, watching, feeding and changing him.

Party of Five: The Complete First Season
The season begins with the Salinger’s current nanny quitting her job and Bailey conducting a search for her replacement. Into the picture walks Kirsten, a very likeable individual for whom both Charlie and Bailey immediately fall for. Through the first season, Kirsten and Charlie will move their relationship from one of employer/employee, to former employer/former employee to engaged couple. The way the writers move along the relationship is both entertaining and realistic.

The creators readily admit that they often went for the very dramatic during the shows six seasons. In this first set of twenty two episodes, multiple storylines play out, many of them dealing with loss and grief. Naturally, one that is intertwined with many is the effect the parent’s death has on the Salinger children, and they way their death (and their life) has shaped them into who they are. In one particularly well written episode entitled “Thanksgiving”, the drunk driver who killed Mr. and Mrs. Salinger is released from prison, and the different ways each of the children react to that is striking. Claudia just wants to see what he looks like. Julia wants to visit him and offer him forgiveness, while Bailey wants him to suffer they way they have suffered. Finally, Charlie, in a very emotional, telling scene with a twist, wonders about who it is that truly needs forgiveness. Matthew Fox’s performance is very intense acting done extremely well.

Party of Five: The Complete First Season
Each of the actors is given many opportunities to exhibit why they were cast for such an emotionally draining show. Neve Campbell starts off the season with Julia out of control, desperate to live life to its fullest since one never knows when it could all end. Skipping class, staying out late, working at a bar (even though she is only fifteen), Campbell appears to be headed for self-destruction. Scott Wolf’s character of Bailey moves through the season first meeting Kate, a girl who wants to refrain from sex until she marries, to Jill, another girl who seems to only want to have sex. When Bailey learns that Jill has a very drastic drug abuse problem, his repeated attempts to help her seem to do no good, and, in the final episode of the season, this particular story arc comes to a head. As tragedy once again befalls Bailey, he and Charlie share a scene which I defy anyone to watch and not be moved to tears.

Through all the tragedy and difficulties the Salinger children continue to turn back to each other to help them through them. In successive seasons, this group will deal with issues ranging from mental illness, alcoholism, racism and cancer. The season ends where the pilot episode ended, with the Salinger family having their weekly dinner at their parent’s restaurant, sharing with each other what is happening in their lives.  

Video
Shown in 1.33:1 full screen, in 1994 there was not the clamour over widescreen as there is today. The video transfer on this set is very good. There is little or no film grain or dust and all of the colour levels come through very well. Edge enhancement is nearly invisible and the black and white levels are neither overpowering nor too muted. There are many outdoor shots in the series, and the lighting for them is done extremely well with great care to ensure that none of the characters are lost in them. Flesh tones appear to come across in good fashion.

Party of Five: The Complete First Season
Audio
Sporting a Dolby Digital 2.0 Surround soundtrack, it serves the material just fine.  As with most of these types of shows, the storyline is mostly dialogue driven, and all of the dialogue in the series is very crisp and clear. One thing I did notice on this set, which I hadn’t noticed on some other TV show sets, was the use of “background noise”. Set in San Francisco, as the characters are interacting, either in their home or someone else in the city, there is the unmistakable and totally appropriate background noise of police sirens, trains, cars, etc. Again, not that it is not present in other sets, but for some reason it really stuck out to me in Party of Five.

Extras
Unlike many of the Columbia Tristar TV show sets, [/i]Party of Five[/i] does include a fair amount of extras. The most impressive is a nine part featurette collectively titled Party of Five: A Look Back. Featuring newly filmed material, many of the actors from the series (in fact all of the main actors except Matthew Fox) and the co-creators offer their perspective on what it was like to come together and work this project. Scenes from some screen tests are included and there is a fair amount of titbits about how the series came to be and what the first days on the set were like. Also included in this section are stories about what it was like to work with both babies and dogs, how all of the stars seemed blindsided by the fan reaction to the show, how the series finally came into its own, and a short piece on the series winning the 1996 Golden Globe Award for Outstanding Drama Series. Clocking in a nearly one hour, it is a very satisfying piece on the show.

Party of Five: The Complete First Season
A second featurette actually consists of clips from a retrospective show which aired during Season Five entitled Party of Five: A Family Album. Not surprisingly, some of the titbits and stories which are told during the “Look Back” featurette are repeated here (since the ones here were filmed in 1999). However, although a bit brief, it does include some on screen comments from Matthew Fox which are missing from the first featurette, including one in which he tells the story of when he and Scott Wolf met and the only thing he could think to say to him was, “Wolf?  Fox?  Pretty funny, huh?”

Besides the mandatory previews present (that can be skipped), the final extras are both cast and creator commentaries on three different episodes. The viewer has the choice to play either the cast commentary or the creator commentary. As one would expect, the difference between the two is like night and day. Wolf, Fox and Lacey Chabert (Claudia) provide the cast commentary and it is obvious from their interaction that there is a great fondness both for each other and for the series as a whole. Much is made of the many hair styles Matthew Fox sported during the first season. The obligatory making fun of each other is present, as are the pauses and the “nice shot” or “wonderful scene” comments. However, this is not a bad presentation by the gang. The creator commentaries focus more on what they were trying to do with the series as a whole, and items about how the series came about, plus the gushing over the way the actors performed their parts. Either commentary track is worth listening to.

Overall
These type of genre shows work best when, through the writing and acting, a viewer invests themselves emotionally in the lives of the characters. This makes the viewer want to return week after week to see what is going to happen next. It is in this way that Party of Five works for me. All of the family members have some serious character flaws, and yet you sympathise, root, and feel genuine sorrow for them. When viewed one show after another in larger quantities, as a season set can afford, I am tempted to say that the emotional investment becomes deeper and more profound. As these type of genre shows go, Party of Five is very good fare and will leave you feeling satisfied and glad you took the time to get to know the Salingers.


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