By Ken Tucker
Updated April 30, 1999 at 04:00 AM EDT

I had to do some remedial Party of Five viewing to write this review. I'd kept an eye on the show for four seasons, noted the well-wrought earnestness creators Chris Keyser and Amy Lippman brought to the ongoing saga of the orphaned Salinger siblings, observed the ascension to teen-idol status of stars Scott Wolf, Neve Campbell, Jennifer Love Hewitt, Matthew Fox, and Lacey Chabert, but had pretty much consigned PO5 to the Worthy But Not for Me category that some TV shows fall into for any television viewer. You know, the ones whose appeal you can understand and admire from afar, but which don't make any emotional or aesthetic impact.

But recently, I'd been hearing so many lamentations over the abusive relationship between Campbell's Julia and her boyfriend, played by Scott Bairstow, that I was compelled to tune in and catch up. Certainly, this season's travails of college student Julia have been heartrending: To think that such a pouty smarty as she would fall for Bairstow's Ned — a sallow fellow with pathetically inadequate lip and chin hair, along with a look of perpetual neediness that would shame a whipped dog — well, this was just sad. Even that baleful loser of a soon-to-be-ex-husband of Julia's, Griffin (Jeremy London), was better than Ned.

And oh, yes, when this whelp gets angry, he hits. Now, battering a woman is certainly an expedient way to turn any character into an evil demon. That it's also a plot device used in a thousand recent regular-series and TV-movie plots has unfortunately rendered it trite as well. Yet to the writers' credit, this story line kept its focus not, as a lesser show would, on Ned, but instead on Julia's stubborn reaction to him: She would not leave the guy — for weeks, unto months, of the series. We were given to understand her motives. Julia felt that having bailed on her puppy-love marriage to Griffin, she was going to try to make this relationship work, gosh darn it. "Okay, maybe you have a problem…but that doesn't make you a bad person," quoth Julia to Ned in February.

Ah, but in this drama, it does, Julia. The first time Ned slapped you across the face, he was a goner — he had to leave, it was just a matter of time. And the length of that time — before Julia notified the cops and Ned's family that she wanted him to stop stalking her, in the March 17 episode — was what drove fans crazy. Internet chat rooms, PO5 websites, and Rosie O'Donnell were ablaze with fiery rage over the producers' permitting Julia to stay with Ned as long as she did.

I think the show's writers were doing two things with the Julia-Ned story line. First, they were honoring the now-entrenched way in which most quality dramas work out problems: slowly. Ever since the advent of Hill Street Blues‘ extended plotlines, one tip-off that you're dealing with an ambitious series is that story lines take a while to play out, revealing new layers of familiar characters along the way. (If some bozo had hit one of the Camden kids in 7th Heaven, by contrast, that problem would have been solved in less than 60 minutes, with the malefactor undergoing counseling and the episode concluding with a cheerful family basketball game.)

Second, I think the PO5 writers were treading water. Julia-and-Ned was an easy hot-button issue to keep viewers interested at a time when the attentions of several of the people involved in the show were beginning to stray. Campbell herself has been moving into feature films and has said that after her contract is up next year, she's probably PO5 history, and Wolf has dropped similar hints. Exec producers Keyser and Lippman have been developing a spin-off show for Hewitt's Sarah character, Time of Your Life, as well as another potential fall pilot about police officers, Partners. So sticking with one subplot saved a certain amount of time and energy.

Julia and Ned have dominated the show, but I've enjoyed the other main subplot, the tussle for custody of little Owen (Jacob Smith) between his brothers Charlie (Fox) and Bailey (Wolf). This squabble brought out the worst in everyone, and PO5 has always been a show that's at its best when its nice, uniformly wimpy-voiced protagonists are being screechily unreasonable, and so it was here. True, the end result was absurd — Charlie, after fiercely fighting for and winning Owen in a family-court decision, ends up handing the kid over to a mopey Bailey anyway, because it's, you know, Best for the Child. But this did not lessen the pleasure of seeing brother dis brother, as the rest of the family looked on, aghast, their screechy voices temporarily silenced.

I gather that many devoted fans are tiring of the show, feeling burned out by the slow pace of annoying plot developments. (And there have been weird ones; remember that outta-nowhere tongue-lashing Owen's teacher gave Charlie when she thought he was making fun of her "up-speak" disability?) Additional dissatisfaction may brew if reports of having guest star Olivia d'Abo and Campbell engage in what Craig Kilborn invariably terms "hot girl-girl action" prove to be somewhat exaggerated. But me, I'm converted. With the quality of current ER and NYPD Blue episodes looking wobbly, my serial-drama jones needs a fix, and having consumed the present PO5 season in a few big gulps, I'm ready for more. I'll follow these Salingers until they all decide their party's over. B