Party of Five
I had a chance to visit the set of the new Party of Five, set to debut this week on Freeform. The show’s premise is so timely (instead of losing their parents to an accident, this reboot tells the story of parents who have been deported by ICE), and I was glad I had a chance to speak with all of those working on the series for this New York Times piece.
NYT, Freeform, and the set
CASTAIC, Calif. — It was mid-scene, and the writers of the “Party of Five” reboot were huddled between takes in the parking lot of a stucco and rock clad-motel outside Los Angeles. The low-lying hills surrounding the location, chosen to resemble a town in northern Mexico, glowed in the amber afternoon sunlight. The writers were stuck on a word.
In Mexico, was it pronounced why-figh or wee-fee?
“In Spain,” one explained, “you say wee-fee.”
After some murmuring another called out, “But we’re not in Spain!”
The show’s writers draw from diverse and divergent backgrounds — with roots in Spanish-speaking countries stretching from Colombia to Mexico — and no one on set could settle on the correct pronunciation. With little time to spare, they made a decision: They would shoot the word both ways, guaranteeing themselves, if nothing else, at least one authentic option.
It’s the kind of nuance the original “Party of Five,” about a white family of five brothers and sisters forced to raise themselves after the death of their parents, might have innocently skated over when it debuted in 1994. Back then, American TV shone with a veneer of peak optimism. The era’s most popular shows centered on mysteriously affluent — and mostly white — urban dwellers drinking bottomless cups of coffee. And like most mainstream art of the time, it was essentially devoid of politics.
But in 2019, divisive governmental policies like Muslim bans and family separation have made it harder to create a family TV drama in a bubble. So when the creators of “Party of Five” decided to reboot it now, there was a feeling that they needed a different approach.
“When you read on the front page that kids are having to raise themselves because their parents are taken away from them, well that’s a reason to tell the story again,” said Amy Lippman, a creator of the original series and the reboot, in an on-set interview in November. “Because it’s actually happening.”
Spurred by a desire to engage that issue, the creators chose to fundamentally alter the premise: In the original, which aired on Fox for six seasons, the Salinger parents died in a collision with a drunken driver. In the reboot, which debuts on Freeform Jan. 8, the Salingers would be replaced by the Acostas, five brothers and sisters whose immigrant parents are deported to Mexico. (The pilot will appear exclusively on Hulu Jan. 1.) Once again, the children would have to get by on their own.
Michal Zebede, a co-executive producer and writer on the series who is of Panamanian and Costa Rican descent, argued that the timeliness of the reboot set it apart.
“This is an opportunity to really get into the perspective of a group of people in this country that has been marginalized — and on many occasions villainized — and just show they are people, too,” she said.
The original “Party of Five” had no shortage of gut-wrenching drama, but it was born of a different impulse. Fox’s “Beverly Hills, 90210,” which debuted in 1990, was a monster hit, and the network was looking for a companion piece.
Fox wanted a show about “kids living on their own without guardians, woo-hoo party,” Lippman said. “We said: ‘We can’t write that show. It’s going to be much more somber.’”
In the original series, the Salingers’ parents were killed in a drunken driving accident.
What Lippman and her fellow creator, Christopher Keyser, offered instead was a gripping and earnest show that won a Golden Globe for best TV drama in 1996.
The series bubbled with soapy plots and scenes of unorthodox child-rearing, featuring characters that a generation of TV watchers came to love: The eldest son, Charlie (Matthew Fox), was a juvenile, womanizing 20-something forced to take responsibility for his siblings and help run the family restaurant. The second son, Bailey (Scott Wolf), was the glue who kept the family tight until his alcoholism almost destroyed it. Julia (Neve Campbell) had a penchant for bad romance. And the precocious Claudia (Lacey Chabert) watched her innocence slip away as she was forced to shoulder grown-up issues — like helping raise an infant brother.
The five Acosta children encounter their own constellation of struggles — some similar to the Salingers’, others unique to their own complicated immigration story. In the pilot, their parents, Javier and Gloria (Bruno Bichir and Fernanda Urrejola), are arrested by Immigration and Customs Enforcement officers at the restaurant they successfully own and manage. Nearly a quarter-century earlier, we learn, the couple crossed a scorching Mexican desert to illegally enter California, bringing their then-infant son, Emilio, with them.
“They came here with a super young baby and a dream,” said Urrejola, a Chilean native. But they spent their whole time in America carrying around that fear of deportation, she added, “even though they’re here 24 years with a business and family.”
After making a home in Los Angeles, Javier and Gloria gave birth to four more children. Each is an American citizen, but the situation for Emilio is different: He is one of roughly 800,000 immigrants known as Dreamers, who came to the country as children and were granted temporary protection and work permits under the Obama administration’s Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program, or DACA.
In September 2017, President Trump announced he was terminating the program. The fate of DACA now rests with a conservative-leaning Supreme Court, which in November signaled it was not likely to overturn the president’s decision.
The precarious status of Emilio, the family’s only adult child — and thus, the only one empowered to keep his siblings out of foster care — means that even quick family visits to Mexico are almost certainly impossible.
“Emilio being a DACA kid comes with a lot of baggage,” Brandon Larracuente, who plays Emilio, said in an email. “In the U.S., he has to be on his best behavior to avoid being deported. For example, a lot of the workers at the family restaurant are undocumented; if ICE gets wind of that, he could lose his DACA status.”
As in the original series, the orphaned brothers and sisters are forced to fend for themselves, headed by an older brother who is forced to grow up fast. Credit...Gilles Mingasson/Freeform
Executives at Sony Pictures Television, which produced the original, had long been looking for a way to resurface “Party,” said Jeffrey Frost, its president. But it had to be grounded in a fresh take that would resonate with an audience that may have never seen the first.
When Lippman presented “this latest take,” Frost said, “it was just the absolute right time, it was the right tone, and it was so relevant to today.”
(The project was pitched to Fox in the very early stages of development, but the teen-drama format wasn’t a good fit for the network, a Fox spokesman said.)
In terms of character development, the first “Party” offered an already proven template — fans will notice there’s more than a wink to the original. Emilio is a rakish homage to Charlie. His younger brother Beto (Niko Guardado) is a tender throwback to Bailey, and his twin, Lucia (Emily Tosta), has the fervor of Julia. Valentina (Elle Paris Legaspi) is just as bright and optimistic as Claudia. And like their predecessors, they all have to take care of a baby, this one named Rafael.
But building the new series around family separation presented new challenges, beginning with the fact that its creators, Lippman and Keyser, were neither immigrants nor Hispanic. A desire to credibly dramatize the issue’s psychological complexities shaped how Lippman staffed the writers’ room.
“That insecurity, I don’t know it,” acknowledged Lippman, who is also the series’s showrunner. So she hired people with more than just great storytelling chops, including the writer Mary Angélica Molina, who moved from Colombia to New York at age 10.
Molina initially side-eyed the premise.
“Being somewhat militant about wanting to tell stories from my community and my perspective, I sometimes see reboots as a way to perpetuate a narrative that I am not interested in,” she said.
Within minutes of meeting Lippman, however, Molina understood this new version would not only sidestep the typical reboot trajectory but also ensure that the Acostas’ story was told by writers who looked like her.
“She was coming at this from a very honest place,” Molina said of Lippman. “Her intention was to use her brand — a thing she had created and built — in order to create a pathway for people like me to tell those stories.”
“When you read on the front page that kids are having to raise themselves because their parents are taken away from them, well that’s a reason to tell the story again,” said Amy Lippman, a creator of the original series and the reboot.Credit...Sony/Freeform
The uncertainty surrounding DACA created another challenge: The Supreme Court is positioned to hand down its decision during the reboot’s first season. “Logistically,” Zebede said, that “presented a problem for us in the writers’ room.”
“If you lean into the DACA drama, by the time it airs, it might be different,” she added. “What we realized is at the end it didn’t really matter what the law actually says about DACA. In terms of the experience of being alive today — and three years ago and three years from now — if you are DACA, or potentially DACA, that is this experience of fear that it can all be taken away in a second.”
In a production trailer, the sense of personal investment among the young actors gathered was palpable. Guardado, who plays Beto and is of Mexican descent, said he saw the reboot as a chance to lift immigrant stories off the front pages and into homes they might not otherwise reach, with an “authentic story line of a family that is happening all across the country.”
For Tosta, who was born in the Dominican Republic and moved to the United States when she was 12, the role of Lucia spoke to her own story — not least of all her experiences with the labyrinthine immigration process, and the emotional toll that takes.
“I can pull from real life things, and I think that allows me to tell a real story,” she said. But it wasn’t “just about deportation and immigration.”
“It’s about unity,” she added. “It’s about the strength that our family has, no matter what, in the midst of the chaos we are going through.”