When Party of Five premiered on Fox in 1994, the network was trying to capitalize on the success of its breakthrough teen drama, Beverly Hills, 90210. But Party of Five was similar to 90210 only insofar as both were about oft-lovelorn teens. Heartfelt and earnest, Party was a plaintive acoustic set to the splashy 90210’s four-on-the-floor. The show focused on the Salingers, five siblings orphaned by a drunk driver and left to fend for themselves in a sprawling San Francisco manse. The show was not precisely realistic—it was no My So-Called Life, which premiered the same year—but it tapped directly into something even more powerful: the aspirational melancholy of adolescence.
Charlie (Matthew Fox), the only adult sibling, Bailey (Scott Wolf), Julia (Neve Campbell), Claudia (Lacey Chabert), and infant Owen were part of a fictional tradition that stretched back to The Little Princess and The Boxcar Children and would continue forward into Harry Potter: the horrible-delicious predicament of the make-believe orphan. In fiction, the loss or absence of parents offers adventure, no oversight, and a premature shouldering of adult responsibility, even as it inflects this fantasy of freedom with sadness and meaning, with heft, with tragedy. (When the parents are just away for a long weekend—see: Home Alone, Don’t Tell Mom the Babysitter’s Dead, Camp Nowhere, et al.—you have a comedy.)
Party of Five proffered over and over again the good cry, often about things that had nothing directly to do with the Salingers’ parents—like, say, Bailey’s abruptly dead girlfriend, his alcoholism, Julia’s love triangle with her bestie and her bad boy, the depression of Charlie’s long-term girlfriend and Claudia’s proto-mother figure Kirsten, and on and on. (If you couldn’t tell: I loved this show.) Party of Five was, to pick an era-appropriate reference, the Fumbling Towards Ecstasy of TV shows. You put it on and felt grandiosely, fulgently—which is to say perfectly—morose.
The new version of Party of Five, which premieres on Freeform on Wednesday night, is a timely reinterpretation of the original, a remix with meaning. The new Party of Five, which is being overseen by the original creators, is important with a capital “I” insofar as it is explicitly political, directly taking on the ruthless inhumanity of Trump’s immigration policy. Set in the present day, the series features the Acostas, five children left to fend for themselves not because their parents have died, but because they have been deported. Twentysomething years ago, Javier (Bruno Bichir) and Gloria (Fernanda Urrejola) Acosta illegally crossed the border and built for themselves a life, a family, and a restaurant business, upstanding citizens in every sense but the legal one. In the first episode, the Acosta parents are deported in a heart-wrenching scene that it may be physically impossible to watch with dry eyes. Though it’s inspired by front-page news, the show works for much the same reason the original did: It’s an emo, earnest family drama that still offers audiences a good cry, now with the additional virtue of being a noble one.
The five Acosta children are closely modeled on the Salingers: Emilio (Brandon Larracuente), a would-be rocker who goes by the anglicized Milo, is the only legal adult—but he is also a Dreamer, his hazy legal status leaving the family in a precarious position made even more so by his irresponsibility. Lucia (Emily Tosta), a former straight-A student who, awakened to the hypocrisy and injustice of authority, begins to break the rules, even as her twin brother Beto (Niko Guardado), a terrible student but a natural nurturer, takes on more and more responsibility. The tweenage Valentina (Elle Paris Legaspi) is the most obviously devastated by her parents’ absence, calling her mother dozens of times a day. And then there’s the baby, Rafael, who the show has to contort itself to leave with his siblings in order to preserve the “five” of the title.
Despite its currency, the show often plays like a throwback: a teen drama that’s a little simpler, a little sweeter, a little more intimate than a show like Riverdale, with its high-octane plot and glamour and big feelings. It’s about the centrality of family to the teen experience , but instead of being able to age-appropriately roll their eyes and break away, the Acostas have to cleave closer together than ever. In the first three episodes, the focus is on failed physics tests, learning to run the restaurant, meetings with the principal, and bucking against Emilio’s unearned authority. There’s also a storyline in which Beto—like his predecessor, he’s referred to as Bey—has to call his mother and ask her, tearfully, to please cut back on phone calls with Valentina. She’s using her mother like a security blanket and not adjusting to their new, painful, parentless reality.
Storylines like this are what make the new Party of Five sadder and more wrenching then the original. Unlike the Salingers, the Acostas are not awfully, simply without their parents. They are in an excruciating limbo. They can FaceTime them, but they can’t have them. They exist but they have to pretend, protecting the adults from the financial and behavioral difficulties they face at school and at the restaurant. What the Salingers had to do was clear: Learn how to live without their parents. But the Acostas have a more complicated mandate: to outgrow their living parents, to learn not to need them, even when they can call them on the phone. The Salingers had to get on with their lives, however hard that was. But the Acostas can’t do that. The wound can’t begin to heal.