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Survival of the Salingers : WHY FOX DECIDED TO NURTURE ITS MOST PROMISING BUT HARDLY SEEN DRAMA

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Beth Kleid is a regular contributor to TV Times and Calendar

Each week on “Party of Five” the five young members of the Salinger family gather around a corner table and honor their pact to share a weekly dinner at the San Francisco restaurant formerly owned by their father. Amid the comforting sounds of clinking glass and china and the din of conversation, this party of five can breathe a collective sigh of relief. For despite the roller-coaster ride they face growing up without their parents, who died in a car accident, they are together.

And they are a family.

In real life, the stars of the Fox drama had similar bonding sessions while filming the show last season. They met at each others’ homes weekly for dinner. Sometimes they cooked, sometimes they ordered in. “At my place, it was takeout,” Scott Wolf, who plays second son Bailey, says with a laugh. But mainly, they just hung out and talked.

“There’s a special bond between us,” says Neve (rhymes with Bev) Campbell, who plays wistful teen-ager Julia.

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Familial feelings are big on and off the set of “Party of Five.” In fact, it was Fox’s parental nurturing of the critically acclaimed but low-rated hourlong drama that saved the show from oblivion, where ABC’s “My So-Called Life,” another realistic, critically acclaimed hour drama about young people, ended up.

The show’s creators and executive producers, Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser, who met in a playwriting class at Harvard University, say that Fox’s support was critical to the rescue mission that brings it back for a second season. (The network has been airing first-season repeats all summer on Wednesday nights.)

It’s not difficult for “Party” fans to understand the network’s devotion. The show about Charlie, Bailey, Julia, Claudia and baby Owen, who range in age from 24 years to 16 months, uses high drama tinged with humor to illustrate what freedom from parents really means. The show is about growing up on fast forward--dealing with falling in love, friendship, paying the bills, losing one’s virginity--without the help of a parent’s sympathetic ear or guiding hand.

The realistic feel of the show is what Fox Entertainment President John Matoian loves about it. “I just think it’s one of those shows that’s honest. It rings true to me. Everything about it--its casting, its production, its writing, the story lines,” he says.

But “Party of Five” is not easy TV, which Keyser thinks is one of the reasons the show had trouble finding its audience. “It requires a lot from people. It took a little while for people to say, ‘I’m willing to invest in a different way than I’m required to do for ‘Melrose Place’ and ‘90210,’ ” Keyser says, referring to Fox’s popular campy dramas.

The network backing doesn’t cinch the show’s fate, however. So how will the producers ensure that the party goes on?

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For one thing, the Salinger kids are moving on--and away from their parents’ death at the hands of a drunk driver. “We played the episode in which they had their first holiday after the death--we’re not going to play the episode in which they’ve had their fifth,” Keyser explains.

The heavy premise of the show proved to be both a blessing and a curse last season. “The deaths will be very subtextual now, which is not to say we won’t deal with it occasionally,” Lippman says. Especially when “big milestones” arise, such as the upcoming wedding (“If and when there is a wedding,” Keyser adds) of eldest brother Charlie, a reformed flake, and live-in girlfriend Kirsten.

In an attempt to hook viewers, producers say that big stories and big issues will feature prominently in the drama known for showing that small moments can also be huge. “I think we have an obligation to tell big stories, but they need to be big stories that are told in the voice of the show,” explains Lippman.

What’s in store for the gang living in that beautiful Victorian on a hilly San Francisco street?

Charlie (Matthew Fox) will deal with the possible wedding and what it really means to be responsible. Bailey will tackle the death of his girlfriend from a drug overdose, as well as what role he wants to play in the family.

Julia will be involved in a romantic triangle. “She’s the character who is really on the cusp of exploring her sexuality,” says Lippman. The producers are wrestling with whether Julia should lose her virginity.

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And 12-year-old Claudia (Lacey Chabert), the violin protege, will enter junior high school. “For the first time we will begin to play how her extraordinary talents set her apart from other kids,” says Lippman.

And baby Owen, who is played by twins Brandon and Taylor Porter, will continue to be the irrepressible and occasionally cranky 16-month-old he proved to be on a recent photo shoot.

Keyser calls the ensemble cast’s appeal a strong point. “I think the reason the show succeeds is that the actors are so incredibly likable,” he says. The show has sparked the actors’ careers--both Campbell and Wolf spent their summer breaks working on major feature films.

Having a second chance with “Party of Five” means a lot to the cast. Campbell, who is 21 but plays 15, likes playing Julia because she rings so true. “I certainly was like Julia--I never fit in,” she says. “I relate to her.”

Fox’s Matoian hopes that the show has an easier go at finding its niche on the fall TV schedule. “I’m incredibly optimistic,” he says.

“Party of Five” airs Wednesdays at 9 p.m. on Fox.

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