This article is part of the Lily Lines newsletter. You can sign up here to get it delivered twice a week to your inbox.
Illustrations by Ross May.
It’s a tricky thing to make art that effectively mirrors life — all the more so when that art is taking on a second life. Freeform’s reboot of the ’90s hit “Party of Five” reworks the classic drama with a poignant twist. In the original series, the five Salinger siblings are forced to fend for themselves in San Francisco when their parents are killed in a car crash. In the reboot, the Acosta kids figure out life on their own in Los Angeles after their parents, Javier (Bruno Bichir) and Gloria (Fernanda Urrejola), are arrested and subsequently deported during an Immigration and Customs Enforcement raid. Emilio (Brandon Larracuente), a 24-year-old musician, heartbreaker and Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) recipient, becomes the new head of the household and runs the family restaurant, Los Cantaritos. Then there are the teenage twins, school-obsessed Lucía (Emily Tosta) and sports champ Beto (Niko Guardado); precocious 12-year-old Valentina (Elle Paris Legaspi); and their infant brother, Rafael.
Today, the border is constantly retrofitted for public consumption, depicted along the spectrum from authentic representation to bald-faced opportunism, from personal narratives and countless documentaries to “gonzo” journalism and xenophobic takes on immigration. In a world where tragedy tourism abounds and pain is mined for entertainment, can the “Party of Five” reboot maintain a balance between political relevancy and performance?
The pilot starts off shaky. Its core message — that the border is much more than a headline — catches its teeth on overacting and stilted dialogue, and toes the line of caricaturing rather than humanizing the trauma of deportation. At first the characters seem little more than symbols for the issue of immigration. When the Acosta siblings begin to protest at their parents being roughly handed by ICE, Acosta patriarch Javier quells his children’s actions, calling for “Dignity, mi hija. Show them who we are.” Moments like these run the risk of slotting Latinxs as the “noble other,” a Eurocentric trope that boils non-Westerners down to an innate goodness which cannot be corrupted by the evils of modernism, not even systematic oppression. The aim of the scene seems to be to diffuse anger, to diffuse rage in favor of an ambiguous sense of “dignity.” Throw in the incessant Spanish guitar, shots of L.A. murals and chain-link fences, and you’ve got yourself a recipe for a stereotype. One may come to expect such generalizations from Freeform’s parent company, Disney, which attempted to trademark the cultural event Día de los Muertos, or Day of the Dead, while producing its film “Coco.”
The issue of commodifying culture was not lost on the show’s writers. In a New York Times article about the reboot, Mary Angélica Molina, a “Party of Five” writer, recalls that at first she was suspicious of the premise (“Being somewhat militant about wanting to tell stories from my community and my perspective, I sometimes see reboots as a way to perpetuate a narrative that I am not interested in,” she told the Times), but Molina was eventually swayed by the commitment of Amy Lippman, a co-creator of the original series who serves as showrunner and an executive producer of the reboot. Despite early hiccups, the emotional core of the show’s pilot ultimately rings true. Amidst the frenzy of feeling as the judge sternly delivers his decision not to reunite the Acosta family, one would be hard-pressed to keep a dry eye.
“Party of Five” dives in deeper waters in the second episode, “Margin of Error,” which explores everything from the vast legal complexities of immigration law to varying levels of privilege within the immigrant community. Lucía has an exchange with her family’s church leader, Padre Jimenez, that encapsulates the show’s thesis. “Nothing will bring your parents back,” the padre tells Lucía, “except a change in what this country believes.” Later, as Lucía searches for connection in unlikely settings, she attempts to equate her family’s situation with the plight of an undocumented drifter named Matthew. He swiftly sets her straight. “Don’t you have a family?” he asks pointedly, to which Lucía has no choice but to reply yes.
In “Margin of Error,” Beto’s academic failings run the risk of financially straining the Acostas, or worse, drawing the attention of child protective services. To keep her family on solid ground, Lucía asks for a favor from Beto’s physics teacher, who is also Latinx. Lucía’s face-off with Beto’s teacher sheds light on the complexities of relationships between Latinx people. “The world hasn’t been very kind to us lately,” Lucía admits to Beto’s teacher as she implores her to allow Beto to retake a test. Instead of empathy, Lucía is met with thinly veiled anger. “Actions have consequences, Lucía,” the teacher lectures. She adds, “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.”
At the end of the episode, Lucía muses to Beto about the meaning of the phrase “margin of error.” “It’s like, built-in allowance for small mistakes. Wiggle room. I don’t think we get any,” Lucía says, presenting an apt metaphor for the contemporary immigrant experience.
But the series really hits its stride in its third episode, “Long Distance,” exposing the current precariousness of the DACA program — which President Trump recently announced he was ending, with a final decision pending in the Supreme Court — and the painful nuances of family separation. Emilio refuses to hire Matthew as an undocumented worker, despite Lucía’s pleas — she wants to help Matthew get a leg up much in the same way that others aided Javier and Gloria Acosta when they first arrived in the United States from Mexico. But if Emilio looked the other way about Matthew’s lack of citizenship, his own “dreamer” status could be compromised. The possibility of the DACA program ending looms over the Acostas, most of all Valentina, the second-youngest sibling, who is already suffering from post-traumatic nightmares.
Later in the episode, tensions run high between the Acosta parents and their elder sons, drawing out a compelling parent-child role reversal. Over the phone, while Emilio urges his father to let him fully take the reins at the restaurant, Beto implores his mother to ease back on Skype and phone calls with Valentina, who has grown overly dependent on those conversations. Javier’s flashes of anger and Gloria’s naked vulnerability are a stark contrast with the faultless way that the Acosta parents are portrayed in the pilot. In a piercing TV moment, “Party of Five” pinpoints the recurring trauma of separation. “I’m just living for the times we speak,” Gloria tells Valentina, holding back tears. She adds, “Can you help me so I’m not just living to hear you and see you? Maybe that will make me strong enough to be in the world a little more.”
Moments like this do more than hint at the crushing effects of families cleaved in half by the border; moments like this envelope audiences in the anguish.
Despite a rocky start, the reboot presents a nuanced, moving portrait of American immigration. It oscillates deftly between emotional resonance and political commentary. Beyond providing entertainment, “Party of Five” succeeds in feeling necessary.