Sometimes, the crummiest luck makes the yummiest television. Take, for example, the Fox drama Party of Five. With the number of Kleenex crises these cursed orphans have faced over the last three and a half years, they could write the A-to-Z Dictionary of Life’s Bummers (Abortion, Betrayal, Cancer, Death, Estrangement…you get the drift). In fact, their piteous misfortunes could make even the sunniest soul put a bazooka to the temple. (Suicide? Been there, done that in Season 3.)
That said, every Wednesday night after Beverly Hills, 90210‘s high-calorie high jinks run their course, we watch — in ever greater numbers. Or rather, we hover on the edge of our sofas, throwing hands up in frustration one moment, wiping misty eyes the next. We join this Party because no matter which Salinger is in peril this week — Charlie (Matthew Fox), moody-as-all-hell father figure? Bailey (Scott Wolf), clue-starved alcoholic living with sweet and sensible ex-girlfriend Sarah (Jennifer Love Hewitt)? Julia (Neve Campbell), quasi-mature teen struggling with jelly-brained husband Griffin (Jeremy London)? Claudia (Lacey Chabert), over-attuned ninth grader stuck watching little Owen? — it’s not really about some tragedy du jour. It’s about downright gooey things like family and love, but not spoon-fed in a Touched by Dr. Quinn kind of way. It’s about characters with more depth than Tori Spelling’s cleavage: flawed folks who confront mundane problems (rent! loans! money!) and deconstruct them in note-perfect, ”That’s so not the point” twentysomething-speak. And absolutely, it’s about the handsomest and most underrated cast on TV.
This was the year that Party — the thinking person’s soap, if not prime time’s classiest drama — crashed into pop consciousness, attracting scads of press and millions of new devotees (the show’s ratings, always demographically desirable, have jumped 29 percent this season). That’s no tiny feat for a series once rated lower than The George Wendt Show. The Little Drama That Could sent its toothsome stars into Hollywood’s upper stratosphere with its most gripping arcs yet: Bailey’s battle against alcoholism last spring showcased Wolf as a taut emotional spring box wound up over 19 episodes before he exploded in a brutal intervention. The tension shifted this fall to Charlie, whom Fox is taking through an artfully nuanced, painfully detailed struggle with Hodgkin’s disease. Meanwhile, the understated Campbell has, of course, broken out on the big Scream; Love Hewitt scored in I Know What You Did Last Summer (look for her in the teen comedy The Party and a Summer sequel in ’98); and Chabert is costarring in this April’s Lost in Space. So what’s the magic appeal of these young ‘uns? They aren’t slacking their way to success. In fact, they care a lot. ”I don’t think you can care too much,” Wolf says earnestly. ”I remember calling [Party exec producer] Amy Lippman once and leaving a message that said, ‘Hey, it’s me, Bailey. Gimme a call.’ And her husband said, ‘Does he actually like people to call him Bailey?’ I guess I take what I’m doing very seriously.” And for that, we angst you very much.