In the sort of neat coincidence that makes the pebble-sized heart of a TV critic go pitter-pat, two new shows premiering this week, Party of Five (Fox, Sept. 12, 9-10 p.m.) and On Our Own (ABC, Sept. 13, 8:30-9 p.m.; regularly Sundays 7:30-8 p.m.), share the exact same premise, as well as the exact same breed of family pet (a slobbery bulldog). Both series are about siblings who band together after the deaths of their parents (in both shows, Mom and Dad have died in auto accidents). Party of Five presents this tragedy as drama, while On Our Own plays it for sitcom laughs.
The most striking aspect of Party of Five is its meticulous obsession with money—getting it, saving it, spending it. People use money on television all the time, but they rarely talk about it the way the young Salinger clan does. The quintet of Salingers range in age from 11 months to 24. Charlie (Matthew Fox) is a stubble-faced loser who finds himself the executor of his parents’ will only because he’s the oldest; his 16-year-old brother, Bailey (Scott Wolf), is a far more responsible, ambitious young man. Fifteen-year-old Julia (Neve Campbell) is busy turning herself into the neighborhood boy-toy, while grave, gifted 11-year-old Claudia (Lacey Chabert) plays Vivaldi on the violin, feeling ignored. (Eleven-month-old Owen, played by twins Taylor and Brandon Porter, exists primarily as an annoyance with a lumpy diaper.)
The opening episode of Party of Five is full of dollar signs: We learn that, because Charlie lost $12,000 in a bad investment, the kids will have to live on a measly $2,500 for the next four months. The intricacies of extracting money from the Salingers’ trust fund are explored in fascinating detail; their expenses are spelled out (mortgage, groceries, plumbing bill, a nanny for that squalling Owen ). And just as you can be sure there’ll be a scene in which Claudia pawns her cherished violin, you can also bet that by the end of the hour the Salingers will be happily gathered around a dinner table-albeit one in the chi-chi San Francisco restaurant that the family owns. (Why don’t they eat there all the time then, and forget about the grocery bill?)
Party of Five is a sort of fantasy-what would it be like to live on your own, without parents barking orders? But it’s a fantasy that brings you thudding back to reality: As it turns out, your older brother barks the same orders.
By contrast, there’s absolutely nothing realistic about On Our Own. This latest issuance from the Miller-Boyett factory (Full House, Step by Step, Family Matters, Lady Chatterley’s Lover, Tropic of Cancer—oh, I get them all confused) features the acting talents of the real-life Smollett family. JoJo, Jazz, Jussie, Jurnee, Jake, and Jocqui Smollett play six of the seven kids in the Jerrico family. The other one is played by young stand-up comic Ralph Harris, who looks nothing like the Smolletts.
Harris is the oldest Jerrico, 20-year-old Josh. In the debut show, the department of children’s services threatens to separate the Jerricos into foster homes unless they come up with an adult guardian. So Josh does what any oldest brother would do: He puts on a dress, wig, and high heels and turns himself into ”Mama J,” the children’s long-lost aunt. Harris’ bizarre female impersonation makes Flip Wilson’s Geraldine seem like the height of subtlety.
| Both shows send out the message that life is better when you have two living parents, but they demonstrate this in different ways. Five suggests that, without a mother and father, making ends meet is tough. On Our Own says that without parental guidance, your brother may turn into RuPaul. Party of Five: B On Our Own: C-