By Bruce Fretts
Updated December 15, 1995 at 05:00 AM EST

What’s this—a wedding episode, and it isn’t May sweeps yet? Well, Party of Five (Fox, Wednesdays, 9-10 p.m.) doesn’t always follow the rules of prime time, so San Franciscan Charlie Salinger (Matthew Fox) and his orphan siblings’ ex-nanny Kirsten Bennett (Paula Devicq) have chosen the unfashionable date of Dec. 13 for their nuptials. Still, as it struggles to find an audience in its second season, Party is becoming a bit more conventional. And that’s not necessarily a bad thing. Especially when you consider that Party, while not yet a hit, has proved strong enough to knock CBS’ Central Park West out of its time slot—a rare case of quality winning over hype.

Not that Party hasn’t gotten some hype of its own. Critics have grouped it with ER and NYPD Blue as part of the bold new wave of TV dramas, but Party has little in common with those turbo-charged shows. Its soft lighting and acoustic-guitar score signal that it’s really a younger cousin to thirtysomething (another angst-a-thon that won raves but was never a Nielsen fave).

Fox has marketed the series as a sexy youth soap in the 90210/Melrose mold. While Party remains the network’s quietest show — the characters often talk in hushed tones — it’s starting to live up to Fox’s heavy-breathing ads. Much of last season was spent chronicling the Salinger kids’ reaction to the loss of their parents in a car accident, but the focus has shifted this season to a pair of titillating love triangles involving teenagers Bailey (Scott Wolf) and Julia (Neve Campbell). The pre-wedding Party ended with an old-fashioned cliff-hanger, as Charlie flipped a coin to decide if he’d really tie the knot. And Fox and Wolf now regularly peel off their shirts to reveal their buff bods.

Nevertheless, Charlie and Bailey shouldn’t be mistaken for low-grade TV beefcake. They’re not too bright — neither cracked quadruple figures on his SATs — but they’re not proud of it. Bailey’s more sensitive than his horndog older brother, yet he’s still a jock (his goal in life is to have a pair of sneakers named after him—”Air Baileys”).

The brothers’ complex dynamic — Bailey constantly pushes Charlie to be more mature — lies at the heart of Party. Fox is a dead ringer for Northern Exposure’s John Corbett, with one big difference: Fox can act (he may also be the best poster boy for stubble since Don Johnson). And unlike, say, Luke Perry, Wolf can cry convincingly. Bailey seems to live under a black cloud — his girlfriend died of a drug overdose at the end of last season — so it’s lucky that Wolf gives good grief.

Party’s female characters are more troublesome. Premarital panic turned Devicq’s once-serene Kirsten into a borderline harridan. Although Campbell captures Julia’s adolescent insecurity, she needs to vary her line readings (first she whines, then she giggles). As for preteen violin prodigy Claudia (Lacey Chabert), her role has wisely been reduced to pesky comic relief.

Two new cast members have helped bring life to Party. Michael Goorjian (a 1994 Emmy winner for the TV movie David’s Mother) is immensely winning as Julia’s cool-geek suitor, Justin. Their relationship hit a snag when Julia strayed with brooding greaser Griffin (Jeremy London, shamelessly aping My So-Called Life’s Jared Leto), but he’s been sent packing to reform school. And Jennifer Love Hewitt, the best thing about the short-lived Shaky Ground, The Byrds of Paradise, and McKenna, has found a home as Sarah, Bailey’s latest flame.

Party may be a less realistic show this season—the older sibs now seem uninvolved in the care and feeding of their rarely seen baby brother, Owen (Stephen and Andrew Cavarno). But if that’s the price of keeping this worthy series afloat, so be it. Party on. B+