Tuesday, January 7, 2020

TV REVIEW: Freeform's 'Party of Five'

Freeform will launch its new original drama series Party of Five on Wednesday, January 8 at 9/8c. with a special two-hour premiere. The drama stars Brandon Larracuente, Emily Tosta, Niko Guardado and Elle Paris Legaspi.

Read on for my thoughts on the new drama after screening its first three episodes.

Back in the 1990s, FOX's Party of Five helped launch the acting careers of Matthew Fox, Scott Wolf, Neve Campbell, Lacey Chabert and Jennifer Love Hewitt. That is an insane list of talent that all contributed to a successful family drama. And now, original series creators Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser are returning to the property with a new twist on the format. In the original series, the five Salinger children became orphans after their parents were killed in a car accident. In the new drama set to debut on Freeform, the five Acosta children are orphaned after their parents are deported back to Mexico. That is the key distinction between the two series. It's not a simple retelling of the story. Instead, it aspires to make it relevant to a modern audience by addressing the current political reality as it pertains to immigration. That is at the heart of the series. The parents may be deported early on. But the eldest son, Emilio (Brandon Larracuente), who has become the guardian of his four siblings, is also a DACA recipient whose own legal status could change at any moment. The parental loss is less finite than the original version was. The Acosta parents are truly just a phone call away. However, it is still an emotional upheaval for the siblings as they have to rally together as a new version of their family in the hopes of surviving in a city that seems posed to discriminate against them no matter what they do. It's such a visceral entry point into a new family drama. It's a genre Freeform has had a ton of success in over the years. The first few episodes prove that Party of Five is a worthy successor that deserves to be taken seriously for the cable network.

The five siblings are in similar positions to the children seen in the original series. Emilio is a young adult who has moved out of the house in pursuit of his own career. He is an aspiring musician easily distracted by the charms of female groupies. It takes him a beat to adjust to the fact that the lives of his siblings have changed for good. He has to move back home to take care of them. Lucia (Emily Tosta) and Beto (Niko Guardado) are polar opposite, 16-year-old twins. She is incredibly smart and gifted in school. She believes that the world should be empathic to the family's new situation but is incredibly disappointed over and over again that it isn't. Meanwhile, he has always struggled to keep his grades up. He understands the newfound burden of responsibilities better than some of his other siblings right away. He can act incredibly childish as well though especially when it comes to trying to act more mature beyond his years. 12-year-old Valentina (Elle Paris Legaspi) is the most emotionally devastated by the loss of her parents. She actually grows quite attached to calling them on the phone and freaks out whenever too much time has passed without hearing from them in Mexico. And the fifth Acosta child is Rafa, who is an infant celebrating his first birthday early on in the series. These siblings don't always naturally work together. In fact, they are frequently arguing and dealing with this grief in their own personal ways. However, that is quite effective in making them seem like siblings. Some of them can seek clarity and purpose through faith. Others find it through helping others who also find themselves in dire situations. And others still just feel the urgency to uphold everything that their parents built during their twenty years in America. That was their dream. It was taken away from them. They are starting over. But their children can still honor their memories and continue this legacy even though it's different from the lives they wanted for themselves.

It would take an absolute miracle in order for the Acosta family to be reunited. That would require a complete reinvention of the American immigration system. That seems incredibly unlikely. But hope is always injected into the narrative. Javier (Bruno Bichir) and Gloria (Fernanda Urrejola) remain ongoing characters. They may solely be seen through video calls while living their new lives in Mexico completely offscreen. However, they are always worried about the health and safety of their children. They are sending money back to the kids in the hopes of supporting their lives. This is the reality that so many families have to endure. Parents are being separated from their children. The Acosta siblings don't have any other relatives they can rely on in the United States. The burden is placed on Emilio. His leadership of the family has to stand firm. There just remains the difficulty of seeing this life as his when his father keeps interjecting in it. He cares about the family restaurant he has managed for sixteen years. That was his dream. He accomplished it. And now, his son is running it. That story proves that Javier was incredibly trusting of people while he was probably being taken advantage of because of his immigration status. Friendly faces may hide ulterior motives. Javier trusted the people around him. Emilio is now skeptical. He too could operate from a place of fear. However, the overall sense from the narrative is to highlight the injustice of it all and how it motivates people to act out to change the world for the better. America is still the aspirational place to live and build a new dream to so many. It's where Javier and Gloria want their children to remain. And yet, it's a place where so much hatred permeates throughout the culture. That ugly reality is displayed as well and continues to add to the pressure this family faces on an ongoing basis. This isn't just a trauma that happened and everyone has to adjust to a new reality. It's constantly in motion. The adjustment is difficult but the reverberations throughout life are much more perilous for communities of color targeted in such a way. This show aspires to tell that story. It may get distracted by featuring some familiar family drama storytelling tropes. However, the interest is where it needs to be in order to find specificity in the character journeys as well. That makes it very rewarding and compelling in the early going.