As its drama reaches the season's end, will Fox take 'Five' next fall?

By Dan Snierson
March 10, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST
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Matthew Fox and Scott Wolf peer cautiously into the bowl of cereal sitting on the Salinger kitchen counter. Throughout today’s taping of Party of Five, the prop has been compromised by generous splashes of milk — courtesy of costar Lacey Chabert — and the contents of the dish now resemble a swollen, murky sludge. ”Would you believe that is raisin bran?” Wolf asks an equally incredulous Fox.

Mushy flakes aren’t the only thing the show has found hard to swallow this season. Despite generous praise from the media and a devoted core audience, the Fox network’s freshman drama faces possible cancellation after the season finale March 15. ”I can’t figure out why the numbers aren’t very good,” says an exasperated Matthew Fox, ”because everyone I know watches the show.”

Chronicling the lives of five siblings (ages 1 to 24) whose parents have been killed in a car accident, Party has delivered stories of honesty and angst, earning comparisons to such critic-pleasing family hours as Life Goes On, I’ll Fly Away, and My So-Called Life. But like those series, Party has languished as a ratings underachiever: Last week it placed at number 87. ”Shows like this need time to find an audience,” points out Party executive producer Amy Lippman. Adds executive producer Christopher Keyser: ”We’re not in a significantly different place than 90210, Melrose Place, and The X-Files were in their first years.”

Then again, neither were fellow first-year cellar dwellers Fortune Hunter, Hardball, and Wild Oats, yet Fox cut bait on all three this past fall. The network has shown considerable faith in Party, however, ordering a full season of 22 episodes. Says network entertainment president John Matoian: ”Chris and Amy have done a great job at taking what could have been a really depressing show and making it something far greater than that.”

On the set, as the cast puts episode No. 21 to bed, there’s no hint of impending doom. ”Everyone feels pretty good about our chances,” says Wolf, 26, who plays heartthrob Bailey. He and Neve Campbell (Julia), 21, pass the time between takes by slow-dancing around the kitchen set. Meanwhile, Chabert, 12, who plays precocious violinist Claudia, demonstrates the art of chewing a still-wrapped piece of Trident gum. ”It’s business as usual,” notes Paula Devicq (Kirsten, nanny-turned-Charlie’s girlfriend), 29.

Business as usual means few adults on screen. Party has built its parent-free premise into a sort of anti-family-drama family drama, in which the Salingers stumble through tough topics like virginity, death, drugs, and AIDS. ”What makes our show different,” Lippman explains, ”is that there is no character who sits down with a coffee cup at the beginning of the fourth act and says, ‘Honey, don’t sleep with someone you don’t love.’ We have characters that make mistakes. I mean, really make mistakes.”

They also make hearts flutter, a fact that the network has pitched hard to its young audience. As soon as Party debuted in the highly visible post-Melrose slot and fell into a ratings hole, advertisements for the show abandoned heart-tugging tactics and jacked up the sex. One spot teased, ”Melrose doesn’t have the only bad boy on Monday night,” offering a peek at a bare-chested Matthew Fox as Charlie. ”The way the show’s being advertised really has nothing to do with what it’s about,” admits Campbell. ”But if [the promotions] are going to draw in people who watch 90210 and Melrose, then that’s a good thing.”

The soap sell hasn’t dripped into Party‘s story lines. ”You’re not going to be seeing me in a bikini,” insists Chabert. Adds Lippman: ”Fox has never asked us to capitulate in any way. They’ve been terrific, saying ‘Do the show you want to do.”’

Or at least the network has avoided tampering so far. Right now Matoian puts Party‘s chances of returning next year at ”better than 50-50.” The final decision won’t come until May. If Fox drops the series, the cast will know that they didn’t go down for lack of trying. They’ve toured the country, playing with children at toy fairs, chatting it up with Regis and Kathie Lee, and flashing smiles at shopping centers. ”At this mall appearance in New York, we were expecting a smattering of applause, and for people not to know who we were,” Wolf recalls. ”But it was out of control. It was like a mob scene.”

Not that he’s complaining. When it comes to this Party, there’s still room for a few (million) more.

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