Although this show's heavy dose of melodrama often served as its weakest point, this Season 3 story arc with Bailey's alcoholism catches Party of Five at its absolute best. There are many instances where the series laid it on too thick for me, but episodes like this are impossible to avoid, and I have to believe that it features some of the most honest and effortless acting that there could have possibly been.
It had to have been tough for the writers and actors to match the emotional power of the last episode "The Intervention," with an unbelievable story, beautiful performances all around, and audience ratings that went through the roof. Still, with this follow-up episode, everyone managed to keep it going and show that despite all they've been through already, the Salingers' fight is nowhere near over. Bailey seems almost unfazed by his siblings' shocking ultimatum from the week before, and as he keeps spiraling out of control, the rest of the gang wonders if they have anything left to give--especially after Bailey has his "rock bottom" moment at the end of the episode.
On top of all that, each of the Salinger kids are still reeling over the recent disclosure of their father's alcoholic past. Nobody is more affected by this news than young Claudia, who blames him completely for Bailey's problem, all while convincing herself that every positive memory she has of her dad is a fake cover-up of the person he really was. Unable to get the answers she wants from her siblings, and determined to find out what her father was really like back when she was too young to understand, Claudia goes directly to an old family friend. Avery may be able to reveal some serious dirt on Nick Salinger, and as fragile as the family is already, it gets even worse as Claudia works fiercely to defend Bailey's issues--at their father's expense. There were moments when Claudia was a little too precocious and over-the-top for my taste, but she was a heck of a lot smarter and more "with it" than any of her siblings, and as her family falls apart around her, all you want to do is give the poor kid a big hug. I saw it also in the previous "Intervention" episode, but as I observe Lacey Chabert's performance as Claudia in this episode, I firmly believe that she was one of the most underrated young talents of her time.
The entire episode is emotionally draining, and while you're watching it, you could almost swear that it was representing a real-life documentary, not a group of young actors who were acting out a plot from a script. "Party of Five" may have had its own problems at different times, but you can't deny that these actors were absolutely amazing performers, and they put their entire hearts and souls into these episodes. Scott Wolf and Lacey Chabert probably delivered the most incredible and heartbreaking performances, but everyone else was excellent in their roles, too. I do think, however, that Jennifer Love Hewitt's somewhat stale acting really stood out awkwardly in an otherwise phenomenal cast. I really don't have anything against Hewitt, and I think she became a stronger character as the series progressed, but at this point, she seemed to lack the magic that made her co-stars look so natural and authentic in each scene. Watching this episode is even more gut-wrenching when you realize that these are four young, immature, orphaned kids who are attempting to muddle through a worst-case-scenario family crisis without the support of their parents. Even more harrowing is the fact that they have a 3-year-old little brother to care for themselves, and when Bailey's alcoholic ways put the baby in danger, you really begin wondering how they are going to come out of this in one piece.
I admire how the script was presented in a way that not only showcased the talents of the cast, but presented a story that could absolutely happen in real life. Absolutely nothing is sugarcoated, not even for a second, and you have to give them credit for achieving that. The only thing that I don't really like about the show is that despite being stuck in the most horrible nightmare imaginable, the Salingers are not entirely cohesive all the time. Even as Bailey is so close to killing himself or someone else, his siblings still have their own little selfish needs and whereabouts that don't always make sense. I mean, come on--Bailey drinks and drives with their preschooler brother in the car, and then Julia runs off to sleep with some guy before tiptoeing back into the house the next morning? Claudia, too, is off grilling Avery for information about her father, and nobody seems to be wondering where she is all that time. I guess it all goes back to the whole fact that the writers never wanted to make the relationship between these siblings too syrupy and unrealistic, but in the wake of this family emergency, I didn't see them banding together the way you'd think they would. It was the same thing throughout the series, no matter what any of the characters were going through. I'm not saying that they weren't there for each other when it counted most, because they certainly were, but some elements in-between seemed a little flat and unrealistic.
Still, this is a standout episode from the show's third season, and for me, the final 5 minutes never fail to bring out the tears. There is a beautiful and tearjerking scene between Charlie and Claudia that finds Charlie doing what he wasn't always able to do consistently throughout the series--act like an adult and help his younger sister come to a more accurate understanding of the man that their father became after his alcoholism. Also, with Kate Bush's heartfelt song "This Woman's Work" swelling in the background, the final scene between Bailey and Sarah is all I need to know to be convinced that this show was sheer brilliance in its own right. Not everyone will agree, but the series could not have succeeded without just the right cast and a truly talented team of writers. This episode had both, and I will forever believe that it was one of Party of Five's most fantastic achievements. 9/10