In rebooting their 1994 teen drama “Party of Five,” Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman haven’t just dusted off their old IP to cast a new slate of characters in a familiar story. Instead, they’ve twisted their original concept to fit a scenario that is top of mind in 2020. Whereas their first show followed five siblings learning to live after both their parents die in a car accident, their Freeform version — developed alongside new writer and producer Michal Zebede — centers the Acosta family, which gets torn apart one night when ICE picks up parents Javier (Brunco Bichir) and Gloria (Fernanda Urrejola) at their family restaurant. Once they’re deported to Mexico, their children Emilio (Brandon Larracuente), Lucia (Emily Tosta), Beto (Niko Guardado), Valentina (Elle Paris Legaspi), and baby Rafa have to grapple with the realities of raising each other, as well as their own heartbreak, now that their parents can’t.
By virtue of the premise, the pilot episode packs a whole lot of plot into very little time. It quickly introduces us to each child, from 24 year-old Emilio playing gigs and making out with girls as “Milo,” to Beto and Lucia demonstrating the classic “messy versus organized” twins dichotomy, to Val as the emotional glue holding the family together. Once Javier and Gloria are detained, the show makes the decision to skip the six weeks between that traumatic incident and the court hearing that ultimately decides their fate, thus skipping the childrens’ first reactions and readjustments. On the one hand, it’s understandable that the premiere ends with the parents leaving the country, thus setting up what this iteration of “Party of Five” will be moving forward (as is a pilot episode’s general job). On the other, it’s a bit of a shame that the show sidesteps their initial shock and scramble, which are undeniably pivotal moments for understanding where they’re coming from once Javier and Gloria leave for good.
This “Party of Five,” helmed by an overwhelmingly Latinx slate of directors, is earnest and empathetic, taking immense care to create unique relationships between each of the siblings to sell the immense story sitting on their shoulders. Some that involve characters outside the family are less successful, as with Beto and Emilio’s macho posturing over appealing restaurant hostess Vanessa (Amanda Arcuri) or Lucia taking interest in helping a homeless teenager whether he likes it or not. But others — like Beto’s tender care for Val or Emilio’s determination to step up for all of them at his own dreams’ expense — are sharply and specifically drawn, and all the more effective for it. Each child (save tiny Rafa) has a distinct reaction to their circumstances, ranging from anger to paranoia to depression and everything in between. Javier and Gloria, though relatively minor characters opposite their children, get enough room to be devastated, flawed human beings in their own right rather than martyred symbols. Urrejola, in particular, takes every opportunity to show how Gloria keeps surviving while buckling under the weight of her own grief.
The show’s micro focus and deeply personal touches are, ultimately, what keep the show afloat and free of details that might have otherwise mired it in lofty philosophizing about the dire state of the world today. It would have been easy for the show to make the Acostas’ deportation a stand-in for every deportation, or to retrofit stories with the sole purpose of pointing out just how messed up the system really is. Make no mistake: “Party of Five” takes its premise seriously, and frequently points out the hypocrisies and no-win situations that make stories like the Acostas’ all too possible and common in real life. But in keeping its focus to this one family, and distinguishing each member of it as their own person, 2020’s “Party of Five” finds a way to balance its political dissections with its characters’ individual journeys, thus underlining its points even more effectively. After all: the very real problems families like the Acostas face wreak catastrophic personal damage as well as on a broader political spectrum. A show that understands that, and accordingly tells a relevant story with intimate care, is one worth following, even when it takes a bit more time to find its footing.
“Party of Five” premieres Wednesday, January 8 at 9 pm on Freeform. (Three episodes watched for review.)