By its very nature, the premise of Freeform’s remake of Party of Five is quite familiar. Fans of the original series, which ran from 1994-2000 on Fox, will recognize the way this newest version keeps the structure of the show intact: five siblings must put differences aside as they navigate a world without their parents. But where the late ’90s family drama began with a harrowing car accident claiming the lives of the Salinger parents, the Acosta siblings, in this updated version, are forced to deal with a much more timely tragedy: their parents, Javier and Gloria (Bruno Bichir and Fernanda Urrejola), are suddenly deported back to Mexico after two law-abiding decades in Los Angeles during which they raised their kids and built a flourishing local restaurant. Much as One Day at a Time did for its own source material, this remake of Party of Five proves that old stories cannot only be told anew but they can be retooled to better mirror what it means to live in a Latino family in the 21st century.
Therein lies the other way in which the story of the Acosta children (“The story of an American family,” as the show’s tagline suggests) is familiar: tales of family separations are becoming increasingly common. Wanting to move beyond bland statistics, Party of Five anchors its plot on a family that can easily stand in for the thousands of others who are dealing with this very same issue. Indeed, the pilot episode makes such a case bluntly. After the family’s lawyer puts forth an argument that putting musician-wannabe and DACA-recipient older brother Emilio (Brandon Larracuente) in charge of his four younger siblings (which include a baby brother) would most likely result in them being separated and pushed into the foster system, the judge rules that such an argument is not enough to merit the “exceptional circumstances” needed to reverse a deportation sentence. “Unfortunately,” he tells the Acosta kids, “heartbreak is anything but uncommon in these cases.” They may feel what’s happening to them is wildly unique but, in practice, it’s much too common.
Nevertheless, the show’s pilot episode struggles to establish the very premise that will fuel its storytelling. The Acostas’ conversation about leaving baby Rafa with his siblings and to forgo staying close to the border, for example, risks feeling much too contrived no matter how grounded Bichir and Urrejola make their performances. It’s when the show settles into its own rhythms that it finds surprisingly nuanced ways of dealing with the heartbreak and disorientation that comes with being told your parents will no longer be there.
And so, the first two episodes clearly telegraph some of the hurdles the Acosta siblings will have to face. Emilio must forgo his dream of becoming a successful musician to take over the family restaurant; Beto (Niko Guardado) must try and square the life his parents want from him (with school an obvious imperative) with the knowledge that it may not be the best fit for his teenage whims; while precocious young Valentina (Elle Paris Legaspi) must try and reconcile her religious faith with the feeling of hopelessness that surrounds her. But it’s Lucía (Emily Tosta), Beto’s straight-laced twin, who’s left most adrift by the loss of her parents and who’s given the opportunity to voice much of the resentment that bubbles up within the family.
Lucía’s confrontation with Beto’s Physics teacher in the drama’s second episode (“Margin of Error”) is a particularly discomforting moment for the way it captures rifts within the Latinx community. As Lucía pleads with a teacher to give her brother, who most likely failed a test and is bound for academic probation, for some leniency, Lucía, eyes widening, recognizes how her personal tragedy is seen from the outside.
“Actions have consequences,” she’s told. “Some of us do things as they’re supposed to be done. We take time. We do the work. We come to this country legally. I’m sorry that what your parents did put you at risk even though it makes things worse for the rest of us who have to prove over and over again that we have the right to be here.” Coming from a fellow Latina, the line stings and Tosta’s soulful performance lets us see how devastating it is to hear.
The interaction is a glimpse into the promise of this updated Party of Five. Harnessing the heartwarming notes of the original family drama, its timely new premise opens it up to exploring the way family separation policies have far reaching (and sometimes all too mundane) consequences that put children at the mercy of a system that, as Lucía reminds Beto, leaves them no room for any margin of error.
Party of Five premieres January 8, 2020, on Freeform. The pilot episode is currently available to stream on Hulu.