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The Boston Phoenix Dry Those Tears

"Party of Five" beats the soaps.

By Amy Finch

DECEMBER 15, 1997:  Party of Five has a sneaky strength. For months it was my weekly eyeball filler. I liked tuning in semi-numbly to see what new calamity had befallen the Salinger quintet, who'd been orphaned by a drunk driver at the outset of the 'FXT series four TV seasons ago. Then Kirsten (Paula Devicq), who had been engaged to Charlie (Matthew Fox), fell into a morbid depression and couldn't conceive of getting dressed or leaving the house; she'd sit in the dark, crying. Devicq conveyed fragility and despondency so touchingly that all of a sudden I felt like a voyeur, and my eyeballs went into sharper-focus mode.

The show is like that. From week to week the Salinger siblings -- who range in age from five-year-old Owen to late-twentysomething Charlie -- face the usual soap-opera woes. To wit: pregnancy, doomed romance, broken engagements, alcoholism, cancer. But despite the super-sized melodrama, individual episodes like Devicq's are often infused with enough intelligence and sensitivity that you can forgive the staginess of the big picture.

Party of Five has won a Golden Globe, among other awards, but it may be best known for nearly getting canceled early on and then winning a reprieve after a surprise barrage of fan uproar and outrage. Not a lot of people were watching the show, but those who were displayed an intense and uncommon devotion. Why? Maybe because, unlike fellow 'FXT mates Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place, Party of Five is about a youthful nightmare gone real. What could be worse than being a kid and having your parents wiped out in a nanosecond? It's hard enough to be young and stumbling through life; Party of Five lets fans toy with a bad dream from hell. The premise pulled in viewers; the likability of the characters made those viewers addicts.

Take Bailey (Scott Wolf). Even when he cheated on his girlfriend Sarah (Jennifer Love Hewitt) last year, Wolf managed to make the character feel sympathetic and trapped. Then last spring, when Bailey's battle with booze was intensifying, Wolf was stunning as he conveyed the progressive deterioration wrought by alcoholism -- from being an obnoxious drunk denying he had a problem to a young man all but crippled with remorse at the hospital bed of Sarah, whom he'd almost killed in a drunken run through a red light.

Bailey's alcoholic rampage and the legal rigmarole that ensued may have been phony as to duration, but Wolf's portrayal of it wasn't. And to the credit of creators Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser, this theme didn't vanish in typical soap-opera fashion. Bailey's on probation, and he's started a tentative relationship with another recovering alcoholic, Annie (Paige Turco).

Party of Five is not all deep, dark sorrows. It tosses smart humor into the mix, as when Bailey realizes that the chaste Sarah has made deflowerment plans with her new boyfriend. While Sarah's fateful date is getting underway, Bailey is struggling through a chapter in Moby Dick called "The Pequod Meets the Virgin."

Such little moments help balance out the purely ludicrous, as when Annie's brat daughter locks herself in the bathroom as Julia and Griffin (Jeremy London) are about to get married and the fire department has to kick in the door. Or when a chunk of ceiling falls on Charlie and new girlfriend Nina (Jessica Lundy) just as the two are mooning over each other and the perfection of that particular instant.

Charlie, in fact, is next in line to bear the brunt of something heavy, besides ceiling plaster. He's been diagnosed with Hodgkin's disease, which allows Matthew Fox the sort of acting challenge that depression gave Devicq and alcoholism gave Wolf. At one point Charlie's out on a balcony with soon-to-be-ex-new-girlfriend Nina, looking out over a cluster of barren trees. He's been told he has a 75 percent chance of recovery. He wonders, "What's 75 percent of that tree over there? Is that a lot?" He's coming undone, and Nina winds up abandoning him anyway. It's one of those sneaky Party of Five moments, the ones with a clarity and grasp on reality that kill the threat of viewer eye glaze.

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