Money obsession quickly bankrupts Fox's 'Party of Five'

September 12, 1994|By David Zurawik | David Zurawik,Sun Television Critic

Know what's the hardest part of coping after the death of mom and dad in a car crash? Remembering to do things like

paying the telephone bill so that service isn't cut off when you're trying to call your girlfriend.

That's one of the messages in "Party of Five," a family drama from Fox that premieres after "Melrose Place" at 9 tonight on WBFF (Channel 45). Too many of its messages -- like that one -- are about money and only money.

The series is about the five Salinger brothers and sisters -- ranging from age 1 to 24 -- who are orphaned after their parents are killed in a crash. How they cope with grief, with loss, without parental guidance or love, all come second to matters of money. If they can't make a go of it together, the Salinger kids are repeatedly told, the courts will split them up.

But there is the lure of a new leather jacket for a hot date for 15-year-old Julia (Neve Campbell).

There is the chance to buy a home, rehab it, then sell it at a profit for 24-year-old Charlie (Matthew Fox).

There is the chance to buy a new Jeep for 16-year-old Bailey

(Scott Wolf).

Wolf, by the way, looks to be the star of the series. His acting style will remind you a lot of Tom Cruise in "Risky Business."

But the character who will steal your heart is 11-year-old Claudia (Lacey Chabert), who has inherited her mother's musical talent. She has a picture of her mother taped inside her violin case. When the insurance money runs out and the mortgage is due, Claudia takes her violin to a pawn shop and hocks it. The only viewers likely to have dry eyes after that scene are the ones who hate music, children and a mother's love.

"Party of Five" is one of two new series using the premise of a family of brothers and sisters on their own after the death of their parents. The other is an ABC sitcom, "On Our Own," which premieres tomorrow.

In one sense, "Party" is an unusual show for Fox. Outside of "Tribeca," the network has mainly avoided serious drama in favor of comedy and action-adventure.

But, in another sense, it's not unusual at all. Fox is the young person's network. The role of parents in Fox series is best typified by the ineffectual, milquetoast Walshes of "Beverly Hills, 90210." Killing the parents off altogether is the next logical step for Fox.

"Death to the parents" in prime time is an interesting notion for a cultural essay. But it makes for a fairly uninspired drama tonight on Fox when all that seems to matter is money, money, money.

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