The award-winning '90s series Party of Five returned to air this week with a poignant and timely twist.
More than 25 years after the five orphaned Salinger siblings were left to fend for themselves, we meet the Acosta children. In the original iteration of the series, the parents die in a car crash. This time, they're undocumented immigrants, caught up in an immigration crackdown.
The mother and father are deported back to Mexico, and the five kids are forced to navigate life in the United States on their own.
Amy Lippman, who co-created the original series, says she and the other showrunners wanted to take a fresh approach with the reboot. But she says she couldn't have anticipated the story line that would develop when she first pitched the reboot to Fox.
When Party of Five premiered in 1994, the immigration debate looked far different than it does today. Back then, the debate was focused heavily on Proposition 187, the California ballot initiative to deny undocumented immigrants access to public services. Donald Trump's speech comparing Mexicans to "rapists," his calls for a border wall and his administration's family separation policy were still more than two decades away.
It's against that backdrop that Lippman saw a new angle for Party of Five. The network, she says, was receptive to her refreshed pitch.
In an interview with NPR's All Things Considered, Lippman tells Michel Martin that the new series deals with the same themes as the first original: courage, love and children forced to grow up too quickly.
"But [the themes] are kind of writ large now. They are something that isn't just a fictional conceit. It's really happening."
While the new show leans on the qualities of the original characters, their lives are very much cemented in the realities of today's immigration debate.
Take Emilio, the eldest of the Acosta children. He's protected from deportation through the government's Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA) program, but his status as a so-called "Dreamer" rules out any safe options to visit his parents in Mexico. Emilio must stay clear of legal troubles so he can continue working in the U.S. and look over his siblings.
To accurately represent the experiences of real immigrants facing these issues, the show hired Latinx writers. Producers also spent time with DACA recipients to hear firsthand from people whose situations mirrored the characters on the show.
"We've really made an effort to try to represent the real points of view and the real emotions of people who've experienced this specific tragedy," said Gabriel Llanas, a writer on the show.
Llanas, who is himself Latino, is personally invested in the show.
"I began to get nervous about whether or not I was capable myself, from my own very specific Mexican American experience," he said. "Am I a person who is capable of telling this story? And can I tell this story with authority?"
Lippman is clear that the show is not meant to send a political message.
"We don't actually mention the current administration once," she said. "My obligation is to tell a story about a family that draws an audience in ... I would hazard a guess and say that everyone who watches it has had some variation of that experience."
Llanas added, "Ultimately this is a story about a family being courageous in the face of a terrible tragedy and finding ways to carry on with their lives as they endure it."
Despite the heavy subject matter, Llanas promises it's not all doom and gloom.
Recalling the famous line from the film Steel Magnolias, he says that laughing through tears is his guiding principle in writing.
"You do need to to balance heartbreak and humor. And I do believe we've done that very effectively."
NPR's Gemma Watters and William Troop produced and edited this interview for broadcast. Emma Bowman adapted it for Web.
MICHEL MARTIN, HOST:
And finally today, reboots of much-loved TV series are all the rage, and the award-winning 1990 series "Party Of Five" is back on the air. But this time, there is a poignant and timely twist. In the original series, we followed the five Salinger siblings, who were left to fend for themselves after their parents died in a car accident. Now, 25 years later, we're introduced to a new set of siblings, the Acostas. But their parents haven't died - they are undocumented. And despite having built solid lives and a thriving restaurant business, they're caught up in an immigration crackdown.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARTY OF FIVE")
BRUNO BICHIR: (As Javier Acosta) Officers have been here before. There's never been a problem.
JASON CAVALIER: (As ICE officer) Things have changed, Mr. Acosta. I need to see your papers.
ELLE PARIS LEGASPI: (As Valentina Acosta) Mommy.
FERNANDA URREJOLA: (As Gloria Acosta) Everything is going to be all right, mi amor, OK?
CAVALIER: (As ICE officer) I'm not going to ask you again.
BICHIR: (As Javier Acosta) I don't have any papers, all right?
CAVALIER: (As ICE officer) OK, please turn around, sir.
URREJOLA: (As Gloria Acosta) No, we have a baby.
MARTIN: Soon, they are deported back to Mexico, and the kids, aged infant to 24 years old, are left to fend for themselves. Joining us now from NPR West in Culver City, Calif., to tell us more about it is the co-creator of the original "Party Of Five" and the new "Party Of Five," Amy Lippman.
Amy, thanks so much for joining us.
AMY LIPPMAN: My pleasure.
MARTIN: And also joining us, Gabriel Llanas, who writes for the show.
Gabriel, welcome to you as well. Thank you for joining us as well.
GABRIEL LLANAS: Thank you for having me.
MARTIN: So, Amy Lippman, you and co-creator Chris Keyser started "Party Of Five" - I mean, the premise is devastating no matter why the parents are missing. But this is a very different show, and it's very much in the moment. What made you want to bring it back in this way?
LIPPMAN: You know, about three or four years ago, we were aware of these stories that you heard on the news and you read about in the newspaper of kids being separated from parents and having to stay in the country on their own. And that suddenly seemed like, well, those are the themes that we told in the original, but they're kind of writ large now. They are something that isn't just a fictional conceit. It's really happening.
And once we began to really think about, well, what if you take the qualities of our original characters - and we've done that. We've - we're sort of cleaving to the original in the sense of who the characters are. But if you put them in this circumstance, you're dealing with some of the same themes, but you have a whole new way into storytelling.
And I will say that, to our great surprise, this turns out to be a much better idea than the original because (laughter) what we found was with the original, the further away you move from the inciting incident, the less urgent it becomes. But I think what we're finding with this one is that the parents aren't dead. They're very much alive. They want very much to be a part of their kids' lives. But they are distant, and they can't be together. And that gives you a story that we think over the years has a lot of variation in it.
MARTIN: I want to turn to Gabriel in a minute, but, Amy, I have one more question for you - is this story is not your story. I mean, I guess what I'm saying is the original "Party Of Five" could have been lots of families thrust into this situation, but the story of having your parents taken away from you on a moment's notice, feeling like you're an outsider in the only country that you've ever known - that's not your story, Amy. So I'm wondering how you plan to keep it real, I guess would be the way I'd ask it.
LIPPMAN: Yes, it's true. It's not my story. It is my ancestors' story. I mean, I think we were all immigrants in a way. But I wouldn't pretend to know what that threat feels like. And what I decided to do and I think what the material required was that it be informed by voices other than mine. So what I did is I hired a room of writers who can relate to the experience in different ways than I can.
And that turned out to be critical. For example, one of the things we talked about in the room is that one of our writers, a citizen - her parents are from Panama and Costa Rica. When this administration changed, she got a passport to another country. And I said, I don't understand. Nothing's going to happen to you here. You're not at risk of being deported. And she said the anxiety in the country is such that you don't know. It feels like a scary time to be a Latinx American.
And that was something that I couldn't possibly have known. So - and Gabe can speak to it. We talked a lot in the room about how people connected to the story because of where they were from.
MARTIN: I just want to play another clip from the show. This is a scene from the first episode where the kids are visiting their parents at the detention center for the first time. Here it is.
(SOUNDBITE OF TV SHOW, "PARTY OF FIVE")
NIKO GUARDADO: (As Beto Acosta) What does your lawyer say?
BICHIR: (As Javier Acosta) We're one of maybe a hundred cases he's handling.
URREJOLA: (As Gloria Acosta) But that means he has a lot of experience with hearings.
BICHIR: (As Javier Acosta) Yes.
URREJOLA: (As Gloria Acosta) And he's hopeful.
GUARDADO: (As Beto Acosta) Really? He's hopeful?
EMILY TOSTA: (As Lucia Acosta) But cases like yours only get reversed 8% of the time. I looked it up. And it works against us that Emilio is DACA because technically he's old enough to take care of us. Who knows how long his status will hold?
URREJOLA: (As Gloria Acosta) Which is why I want you to go to church mijos (ph), OK?
BICHIR: (As Javier Acosta) And every case is different, you know?
MARTIN: Just to remind people, DACA stands for the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program. A lot of people call these - this group of kids DREAMers. It's aimed at giving protected status to kids who were brought to the U.S. without documents as young kids. So, Gabe, I'm going to put this question to you. First of all, why did you want to be a part of this show? What appeals to you about it?
LLANAS: For my part, what I enjoy writing and what I enjoy seeing on television and film is stories about courage, and I think that ultimately, this is a story about a family being courageous in the face of a terrible tragedy and finding ways to carry on with their lives as they endure it.
MARTIN: What are some other ways that you've been exploring the various emotions that people will experience in going through this? I mean, and by now, I think people will know that there are - this is not made up. I mean, these are not invented stories. So, Gabriel, what are some of the, I mean, ways that you kind of thought about how to explore these characters and how they would feel and what they would go through?
LLANAS: I mean, certainly there's just a lot of research that went into it. I mean, in addition to, you know, the diversity of voices that we had in the room, we attempted to bring in a lot of visitors to our writers room to give us information about what their lives were like as recipients of DACA, as members of mixed-status families, as people who've experienced in their own families a deportation and the ways in which they coped with those issues afterward. I also was able to go down to Tijuana in August and speak with some parents down there - with this group called Mothers of DREAMers who were all women whose - who were deported and whose families are still living in the United States.
And that obviously is the other side of this story. That's the unique side to this version of "Party Of Five," where we spend time with the parents, and we see what their lives are like, and we see what they're coping with and how hard this situation is, which is something that as a parent is almost impossible to imagine, to believe that you can find a way to reconcile and carry on with your lives.
And yet, there were, you know, these women down there, and all of them are fighting to get back into the country, fighting to find legal ways to come back into the country. And they all just continue to have hope despite having been deported eight years ago and 10 years ago in some cases. So we've really made an effort to try to represent the real points of view and the real emotions of people who've experienced this specific tragedy.
MARTIN: Is there any part of you that worries that this is just too heavy for people? That - you know, a lot of people use TV as their escape, and I just wonder if either of you worries that this is a little too real for some people to handle right now?
I mean, maybe they don't want to watch a TV show that's - because on the one hand, as we know, we live in a very politicized moment, and some people - they just don't want to hear it. You know, they want - they don't want to hear it. Their attitude is, you broke the law. You've got to go. That's it - you know, end of story. And other people are, in fact, living this and find it extremely painful.
And so I just wonder if either of you is - worried that maybe people will just - this may be a little too real. I don't know. Amy, what do you think?
LIPPMAN: Well, I - you know, certainly we've thought about that, and we've thought about, what are we delivering to an audience? And I think above all, we want people to enjoy the show. I mean, it's not a lesson on politics. We don't actually mention the current administration once. Trump's - is not mentioned in the series. And I think my obligation is to tell a story about a family that draws an audience in.
And not every story is personal. Not every story is bleak. It's a family show. It's a show about love and courage and how does a family stay together in the face of adversity. And that is true for - I would hazard a guess and say that everyone watches - who watches it has had some variation of that experience.
LLANAS: I just have to quote "Steel Magnolias" and say that laughter through tears is my favorite emotion. I feel like it's a guiding principle in writing for me - that I think that all the time, you do need to balance heartbreak and humor. And I do believe we've done that very effectively.
MARTIN: That was Gabriel Llanas, one of the writers for the "Party Of Five" reboot. With him was the show's co-creator, Amy Lippman. You can see "Party Of Five" Wednesdays on Disney's Freeform at 9 p.m. Eastern Time. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.