Twenty-five years from now, for all we know, children could be viewing media via blink-activated screens embedded in their eyelids. Yet even if that’s the case, I’m willing to bet that they’ll still be consuming a steady stream of stories about orphans. From Cinderella to Harry Potter, these characters have persisted across centuries, mediums and cultures. The idea of young people alone in the world seems to stir up just the right mix of anxiety and aspiration in kids.
Disney’s teen-oriented cable channel Freeform draws on that perennial appeal in two very different new shows—the half-hour dramedy Everything’s Gonna Be Okay and the hourlong melodrama Party of Five—that update the orphan narrative for Generation Z. The latter is, in fact, a reboot of the Fox series that aired between 1994 and 2000. An unexpectedly smart soap about a burnout who becomes the guardian of his four underage siblings after their parents’ sudden demise, the original is mostly remembered for launching a fleet of Gen X idols: Matthew Fox, Neve Campbell, Scott Wolf, Jennifer Love Hewitt.
But in 2020, when many of us think about children living on their own, our minds turn to the brutal separations occurring at our borders, if not to the more quotidian domestic tragedies that play out every day in immigration courts. So it makes sense that the Party of Five that will premiere on Jan. 8 follows the Mexican-American Acosta kids after their undocumented parents (Fernanda Urrejola and Bruno Bichir) are deported. With executive producer Rodrigo Garcia (In Treatment), creators Christopher Keyser and Amy Lippman ingeniously reimagine their story as a portrait of a loving family torn apart by political forces.
The Acostas have plenty in common with their predecessors, the extremely white, pretentiously named Salingers: They have crushes, money trouble, various pressures at school. The oldest Acosta, Emilio (Brandon Larracuente), would rather be fronting his rock band and bedding groupies than taking the baby to the doctor. Model high schooler Lucia (early standout Emily Tosta) starts acting out in the absence of her parents, while her surprisingly sensitive jockish twin Beto (Niko Guardado) takes responsibility for the family’s restaurant and their devastated 12-year-old sister, Val (Elle Paris Legaspi).
Yet there are crucial differences between the Salingers and the Acostas. In this Party of Five, Emilio is a vulnerable DACA recipient, everyone is constantly video chatting with parents who miss them terribly and prejudice against the undocumented lurks everywhere, even within the Latinx community. Because characters sometimes sound like mouthpieces, the addition of some standard teen melodrama can make for slightly ponderous scripts. Yet the show ultimately appeals to our empathy more than our political allegiances. A scene in which the elder Acostas are loaded onto a bus to Mexico hasn’t stopped haunting me.
Much more lighthearted but no less current, Everything’s Gonna Be Okay, which debuts on Jan. 16, is the first stateside TV show from Josh Thomas, a young Australian writer, actor and comedian best known for his sweet, semi-autobiographical import Please Like Me. Like that show, Okay casts Thomas as an endearingly neurotic 20-something gay man. But this time he’s Nicholas, an antipodean entomologist whose visit to his single father and two teen half-sisters in L.A. turns crushing when their dad reveals he’s dying of cancer—and wants Nicholas to move halfway around the world to become their guardian.
Thomas’ characters tend to be kind (if amusingly self-involved) people, and so Nicholas is happy to care for the understandably angry 14-year-old Genevieve (Maeve Press) and her older sister Matilda, who’s on the autism spectrum. Played by neurodiverse actor and activist Kayla Cromer, in a performance that feels lived-in and authentic while also challenging stereotypes, she’s the show’s bubbly, adventurous heart. And although Okay’s setup—which smooths over logistical issues by making the family rich—comes off as contrived, it quickly evolves into a bighearted, bittersweet, sometimes perverse chronicle of three unique siblings teaching each other how to live.
Everything’s Gonna Be Okay seems like the right title for a show about wealthy, white orphans; Nicholas’ immigration status isn’t even a plot point in early episodes. Yet the most memorable orphan stories, over the centuries, have tended to reflect how societies treat their most vulnerable people (see also: Charles Dickens’ many Victorian nightmares). For the Acostas, the future is much less certain. I recommend watching the two shows together—not just because both are very good and each counteracts the other’s stylistic excesses, but also because they create such divergent pictures of survival in America.