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Taking Lessons From ‘Party’ to ‘Others’

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Patience and quality control.

Producers Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman are keenly appreciative of these virtues. After all, they played key roles in the success of the duo’s first television series, Fox’s “Party of Five.”

Patience and quality control were also guiding principles in the development of Keyser and Lippman’s follow-up series, “Significant Others.” The drama, which revolves around a group of twentysomething friends living in Los Angeles, premieres Wednesday on Fox.

“We had pressure immediately to do a second show [after “Party of Five” was launched in 1994] and we waited years to do that,” Lippman, 34, says during a conversation with the pair at their Columbia TriStar Studios office in Culver City. “We waited a long time until we felt we could do it right and we figured out what we really wanted to do.”

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Keyser and Lippman are hoping that the ride coming out of the starting gate will be a lot smoother for “Significant Others” than it was for “Party of Five,” which spent its first few seasons teetering on the brink of cancellation. The new series is being strategically placed in the “Party of Five” time slot, but it only has six episodes to prove it’s worthy of a return engagement in the fall.

“Certainly if the show needs [a benefit of the doubt], we hope Fox will be as good to it as they were to ‘Party of Five,’ because they have some experience in saying, ‘If you just stick with something, it will do well,’ ” says Keyser, 37. “Whether they will be as patient, we don’t know. We hope we won’t need much patience because we have a built-in audience that wants to come to this show.”

A drama about five orphaned siblings trying to keep the family intact after their parents’ death, “Party of Five” represents an unlikely success story given its dark premise. The show survived several seasons of abysmal ratings, thanks to critical kudos, support among key Fox executives and a core viewership that shared Keyser and Lippman’s passion for the series’ young and complex characters.

The generally dour nature of “Party of Five” might suggest a couple of producers without a sense of humor. But while passionate and thoughtful when speaking about their shows, Lippman and Keyser also exhibit a quick and engaging wit. It’s a sensibility that’s more evident in “Significant Others,” even as its characters grapple with difficult relationships and career troubles.

“This show feels very different to us,” Lippman says. “It’s a more optimistic series. It seems like an opportunity to tell stories that have a lot of humor.”

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Still, the writing challenges remain the same for Keyser and Lippman: creating stories and characters that are both tangibly real and dramatically involving.

“These shows have to be about something but they can’t be about too much,” Keyser says in explaining the subtle storytelling balance that helped earn “Party of Five” a Golden Globe in 1996 for best television drama. “In our story meetings, it’s about how far can we go: When does a big event need to push the story along? When do we stop doing that and deal with the stuff we care about much more, which is the small stuff in between? We go through scripts over and over and over again. We may say, ‘No, it’s too melodramatic’ or ‘It’s too much about the event and not enough about how people respond to it.’ So it’s a constant struggle.”

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Keyser and Lippman’s writing partnership goes back to their days at Harvard University, where they met while enrolled in a playwriting class. At the time, he was in law school and she was an undergraduate English student. Their working relationship continued in New York City after they both graduated in 1985. Lippman landed jobs writing for the soap operas “Santa Barbara” and “Loving.” Keyser wrote unproduced screenplays and made money by parlaying his experience as a champion debater at Harvard into a job writing political speeches for the likes of then Arizona Gov. Bruce Babbitt, who had entered the race for the 1988 presidency.

The tandem drew upon their memories of this difficult post-collegiate period while writing “Significant Others.”

“The spirit of ‘Significant Others’ is something that we’re very close to,” explains Lippman. “I know what it feels like to be just out of college and to feel like there are a lot of possibilities in front of you and what it’s like to make the wrong choice. Writing for soaps was nothing I aspired to do. It was good, steady, lucrative work. But I looked around and I saw a lot of career soap opera writers and I knew I didn’t want that.

“I remember feeling like every choice that was in front of me was a big one. Even when Chris said, ‘If we’re going to make a go at the partnership, we need to move out to L.A.,’ I was afraid to go. It wasn’t until the Writers Guild strike hit [in 1988] that I had an opportunity to go to L.A. without walking away from work.”

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In Los Angeles, Keyser’s law background helped them secure freelance writing jobs with the legal dramas “L.A. Law” and “Equal Justice.” They were subsequently hired as staff writers for another law series, 1991’s short-lived “Eddie Dodd.” This was followed by a three-year stint with the NBC drama “Sisters.”

After Keyser and Lippman met with Fox about developing a series around the studio’s idea of a group of kids living on their own, the duo came back with the concept for “Party of Five.” It was far grimmer than Fox’s other youth-targeted shows like the relatively frothy “Beverly Hills, 90210" and “Melrose Place.” But it was indicative of the pair’s desire to produce more realistic drama.

Despite the presence of “Significant Others” in their lives, both Keyser and Lippman say they’re still very much involved with “Party of Five.” They continue to write about one-quarter of each season’s 22 to 24 episodes.

“When I can say I don’t care about writing any of these story lines, I know it will be time to leave,” Lippman says. “But when we’re still trying to manipulate the schedule so that we can get some of the good episodes, you know you still have something to offer the show.”

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* “Significant Others” premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Fox (Channel 11).


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