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'Party of Five' review: Reboot has a purpose and heart

(from left): Elle Paris Legaspi, Brandon Larracuente, Niko

(from left): Elle Paris Legaspi, Brandon Larracuente, Niko Guradado and Emily Tosta star in "Party of Five." Credit: Freeform/Gilles Mingasson

SERIES "Party of Five"

WHEN|WHERE Premieres Wednesday at 9 p.m. on Freeform

WHAT IT'S ABOUT The Acostas are a Mexican-American family who run a popular restaurant in Los Angeles. Then ICE arrives with questions. When answers are not forthcoming, the parents head to a detention center as possibly illegal aliens, and are then deported. The five kids — including a months-old baby — are left to themselves. Emilio (Brandon Larracuente) is 24, so the de facto adult, a role which he is unprepared for. Kid brother Beto (Niko Guardado) struggles to operate the restaurant, while his twin sister Lucia (Emily Tosta) struggles at school; kid sister Valentina (Elle Paris Legaspi) tries to take care of the baby, and everyone else. 

This is based on the Fox series that aired from1994 to 2000.  

MY SAY Because every TV hit that ever aired is a reboot-waiting-to-happen, "Party of Five" was inevitable. But the reboot appeal here was always obvious, at least to the original fan base that watched the Salinger brood grow up, or to any network that knew just how potent a star factory this was during the run. (At least five substantial careers were launched here — Jennifer Love Hewitt, Matthew Fox, Lacey Chabert, Scott Wolf and Neve Campbell.) "Party" gave Fox prestige — unusual for Fox — and awards too. 

A cast reunion was unlikely and inadvisable anyway. A showrunner reunion was not. Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser — a graduate of JFK High School in Plainview, by the way — were pals from Harvard, then TV writing partners who built sensitive, intelligent, carefully drawn stories around teen life in the original, in sharp contrast to some of the other teen storytelling that was going on at the time. 

They've returned for the reboot, but they haven't returned for a facsimile. In fact, this new "Party" has the familiar beats, but it's a world apart from the original because we're living in a world apart from the '90s. It's TV on a mission, and TV as a political statement. It's about the right-now, but the right-now from the other side of the divide — where people live who just might get that knock on the door in the middle of the night, and be on a bus to a detention center by morning. This "Party of Five" isn't outraged so much as confounded. It makes the case that this sort of forced separation can happen, and has. But has this one?

 The pilot wades into the legal swamp of deportation law then makes its way out quickly. Probably too quickly.  The circumstances of the Acosta parents — Javier (Bruno Bichir) and Gloria (Fernanda Urrejola) are only vague. Something he did years earlier is referred to (by Javier) then dropped. They've run the restaurant without incident for nearly two decades, and then came the ICE agents who demand "papers" which don't exist. Are parents ripped from their children like this? Keyser is a Harvard-trained lawyer so you can assume he knows the law, the consequences (and obviously the many news reports). Even the five Acosta children might be imperiled, most notably Emilio, who's a DACA kid (for Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals.) The Supreme Court has yet to decide if so-called "Dreamers" can stay or not. So there's something else for Emilio to worry about.

Keyser and Lippman are careful not to turn this into a tutorial, or outrage TV. Instead, they go back to the basics. Kids are kids. They worry about school, and grades. They worry about status, food, music, love. Sometimes they get around to worrying about their future too. Those emotions are heightened (obviously) in the absence of the two people who are supposed to protect them. 

 This "Party" does what the original did well because it knows all of this. Feelings are universal but circumstances are not. When Lucia tells Beto that "the sunshine in L.A. feels dishonest, like it just goes on shining regardless of how unhappy the people who are getting shined on are," she's not talking about cruelty or injustice, or about the law, ICE, or DACA. She's talking about a specific feeling. Why grief is so desolate. Why the world — and the sun that shines down on it — is so uncaring.

 At least this reboot cares. That's a start.

 BOTTOM LINE The rare reboot with a purpose — and a heart. 

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