It's a Goodbye 'Party' for the Salingers

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Early in "Party of Five's" freshman season, newly orphaned Julia Salinger mustered up the courage to confront the drunk driver who struck down her parents. Initially expressing outrage and heartache, the 15-year-old ultimately tried her best to offer the guilt-ridden man some absolution.

"We're going to be OK," said Julia (Neve Campbell). "The five of us. . . . We're going to be OK."

Well, not exactly, Jule.

If you believe in karmic justice, hanging by a noose from a limb somewhere high atop the Salinger family tree is an ancestor who committed unspeakable horrors, forever condemning Julia, her sister Claudia and brothers Charlie, Bailey and Owen to make endless acts of attrition.

Losing parents Nick and Diana in a car crash before the drama series' story began foreshadowed an endless series of tragedies (also known as "social issues") that would befall the Salinger children during the six years and 142 episodes viewers would come to spend with them.

Bailey, played by Scott Wolf, would lose a girlfriend to a drug overdose, then struggle with his own alcoholism, eventually discovering that his father was also a boozer.

Julia would become pregnant, consider an abortion and then miscarry, only later to hook up with a physically abusive boyfriend who would lead her down a path to lesbianism.

Matthew Fox's Charlie would learn he had Hodgkin's disease and battle cancer for nearly an entire season, while Claudia (Lacey Chabert) would be rushed to the hospital with appendicitis and deal with an attempted date rape. Last year, Owen (Jacob Smith), who began the series as a baby, disappeared from a shopping mall, and this last season (is there no mercy?), they finally got to the dog when the family put old Thurber to sleep after the mutt ingested some antifreeze.

And that doesn't count two fires, Uncle Joe's heart attack, Grandpa Jake's blindness, Sarah's discovery that she was adopted (though that particular plot twist bought actress Jennifer Love Hewitt her own Fox spinoff, "Time of Your Life"), Kirsten's clinical depression or Griffin and Joe's embezzlements from the family-owned restaurant.

As dire as things may have seemed, and they have rarely been anything but dire, the one hope viewers could always cling to was that after all was said and done, each sibling would survive his or her crises and find a way back home to the others.

But after tonight's two-hour concluding chapter, all will have been said. All will be done.

Despite story lines that on paper often sounded unbelievable--if for no other reason than the improbability of one family's being that unlucky--"Party of Five" was always grounded in reality, with little nuances that helped define this complicated quintet.

The images and sounds are unforgettable: the kids playing tag in the cemetery where their parents are buried, Julia's allergic reaction to shrimp, Claudia's nights spent in a tent erected in the middle of the dining room or something as simple as their affectionate nicknames for one another--Bay, Jule and Claud.

The genesis for the drama began with the network's then Entertainment Group president, now chairman, Sandy Grushow, who was looking for a teen series to take the place of "Beverly Hills, 90210," which was beginning to show signs of aging (though "90210" would continue strong for six more years, ending its run later this month).

"I wanted a show that would possess many of the same values that '90210' had in the beginning," Grushow recalls. "A show about teenagers and for teenagers. I pitched the notion of a group of kids who lost their parents in a tragic accident and therefore were forced to raise themselves."

Stepping in to further develop the series were co-creators Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman, who had met in a Harvard playwriting class that also included comedian Conan O'Brien and Greg Daniels (executive producer on "King of the Hill"). Lippman, influenced by the storytelling of "thirtysomething" and "The Wonder Years," says the intent was to take any "standard expectations about a family of orphans on its head."

"We really liked the idea that the oldest sibling was not the most responsible and that the most 'maternal' character [Bailey] was not a girl," Lippman says.

Though it got high marks early on for its quality, from its premiere, "Party of Five" struggled to find an audience (ranking 99th out of 103 shows in its first season).

It received a 1994 Humanitas Award for a story line about drunk driving and the next year TV Guide dubbed it the best show you're not watching. That, along with an aggressive letter-writing campaign by panic-stricken fans, helped save the series from cancellation. In 1996, "Party of Five" beat "NYPD Blue" and "ER" to win a Golden Globe for best TV drama.

Consistent Writing Helped Retain the Cast

Still, the show has been all but ignored by the Academy of Television Arts & Sciences, receiving only one Emmy nomination (for sound editing). (This will be its final year of eligibility.)

Lippman once joked to Fox executives that the standing set should not be a high school but a cemetery. The cemetery joke's not so funny considering the show's chief criticism throughout the years has been its tendency toward darker story lines. There was often brilliance in the darkness, however, such as "The Intervention," in which Bailey is confronted about his drinking, an episode that unfolded almost in real time with the family virtually grounded in the living room for the entire show.

"I kinda wished we had taken a break in between the alcoholism and the cancer," says 33-year-old Fox. "I think [Charlie] found out he had cancer in episode seven [of season four] and he didn't find out that he was in remission until like 20. I had to go through that stuff, and for me it was a long haul. And I can imagine it was for the audience too."

Still, consistently well-written scripts helped keep the core actors from leaving, in contrast to "Melrose Place," for example, which ended its seven-year run on Fox last season with only one original cast member.

"They've always trusted that they would have good material to play, and the series has not lasted beyond the term of the actors' [six-year] contracts," Lippman notes. "No one ever looked to get out." That is surprising given the big-screen successes of some of its stars, namely Campbell (the three "Scream" films) and Hewitt ("I Know . . ." and "Still Know What You Did Last Summer").

That being said, Wolf and Campbell informed producers earlier this year that they would not re-sign for a seventh season. At that point, there was still a chance for the series to continue and, in tonight's finale, viewers will get a glimpse of the groundwork that was being laid.

"We were planning a series that was based around Matthew and Lacey [Charlie and Claudia], with some participation of the other two [baby Owen never developed into a full-blown character]," Keyser says. "It was going to be about Charlie's new family. Sort of a new generation and the way in which the old family led into this new family."

Fox, for one, was ambivalent about continuing without his TV sibs. "It would have been a very different show, so I did have some reservations about that," he admits.

Still, contracts had been signed with Fox, Chabert and many members of the supporting cast to return for another year, with Wolf and Campbell verbally agreeing to visit for a few special "event" episodes next season.

But when the series moved out of its cushy Wednesday time slot at the start of the 1999-2000 season, ratings plummeted below the first season's low numbers, and an argument could no longer be made to continue production.

So tonight the Salingers take their final bow, facing the possibility at long last of leaving their San Francisco nest. By design, the finale closely mirrors the first "Party of Five" episode, both of which were penned by Keyser and Lippman, who had not written for the series since the middle of season five.

"The last episode reminds me so much of the pilot," says Chabert, who grew from an 11-year-old girl to a 17-year-old woman during the run of the show. "It started out with the family going their separate ways after the death of their parents, and then coming back and realizing they're strongest when they're together. And this last episode goes back to that."

One character who will not be returning for the finale is Bailey's girlfriend, Sarah, played by Hewitt, who was spun off into her own series, "Time of Your Life," now on hiatus with nine episodes set to air beginning June 7.

In the best "Party of Five" tradition, the finale is sure to have its share of tears. It certainly did for the cast.

"It just seemed hard to believe that the moment had come where we were acting these characters and this family for the last time," Wolf says. "We sort of just stood in this little group--Matthew, Neve, Lacey, Paula [Devicq, who played Kirsten], Jacob [Owen] and myself, looking at each other, and then they said, 'It's a wrap.' We moved in and hugged each other and held on to each other for a minute."

"It really caught me off guard," admits Fox, whose wife, Margherita, shaved his head and Charlie's trademark beard only hours later.

"Every last person lost it," adds a still-weepy Chabert. "I guess it was our way of saying we loved each other . . . and goodbye."

*

* "Party of Five's's final episode can be seen at 8 tonight on Fox. The network has rated it TV-PG-D (may be unsuitable for young children with special advisories for suggestive dialogue).

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