'Bailey's Got a Problem': An Oral History of the 'Party of Five' Intervention Episode

Ted McGrath/Thrillist
Ted McGrath/Thrillist

Interventions depicted on television shows tend to follow a set format: Concerned loved ones devise a ruse to get addict to show up, addict gets upset upon realizing what's happening, tense confrontation ensues, and addict either storms out or agrees to get help. But in 1997, the FOX family drama Party of Five broke the mold with its Season 3 weep-fest "The Intervention." The very special episode, in which the family and friends of beer-guzzling Bailey (played by Scott Wolf) gather to pin him down about his drinking, takes place primarily at the Salinger house over a 24-hour period. No one stands in a circle. The addict makes the most penetrating attacks and arguments. And no one agrees to go to AA or rehab. It's all desperately ugly, messy, and real.

With Freeform set to debut a Party of Five reboot series on January 8, Thrillist contributor Jennifer Vineyard spoke with original series (and reboot) creators Amy Lippman and Christopher Keyser; co-executive producer Ken Topolsky; episode director Steven Robman; Wolf and co-stars Neve Campbell, Lacey Chabert, and Tamara Taylor to re-examine one of the most authentic and powerful storytelling arcs about addiction ever depicted on scripted television.

Party of Five
Bailey wants a beer | Fox

Christopher Keyser (co-creator): This episode is at least partially inspired by the fact that I had a friend for whom we had to have a drug and alcohol intervention. It's in no way a retelling of that story, but there were some truths from that in this.

Amy Lippman (co-creator): We spent a shockingly long time imagining a close friend of Bailey's going through an addiction problem. Toward the end of that, it was sort of a revelation: "Why don't we give the problem to Bailey?" I'm actually embarrassed that we didn't start from that point.

Scott Wolf (Bailey Salinger): On a lot of shows, the character's battle with alcohol or substance abuse would last for three or four episodes, five at the most: The character binge drinks, everyone says, "You have a problem," the character says, "No, no, I don't have a problem," then, "I do have a problem," and then they're OK. Obviously, that's not what any of that looks like in life.

Keyser: We sort of made a commitment to each other that we would do it over the course of the entire season, that his alcoholism would develop very slowly over time, and we wouldn't solve it an easy way.

Ken Topolsky (co-executive producer): It was important that at the beginning of the year, we see him drink a beer or two. Then, when he opens up the refrigerator, we see some beers behind the milk. Then we see the beers in front of the milk. Then when he wakes up in the morning, there are some beer cans around his bed. There was one episode where he goes to a bar, and that's when the audience knows, "This guy's really got a drinking problem."

"This episode was hard. We cried for a week straight." -Lacey Chabert

Wolf: In a great way, it put the audience through the actual experience and the stages of living with somebody who is doing that. Where at first, it's happening, and it makes you uncomfortable, but it's hard to say that it's a problem.

Topolsky: It's the journey that a lot of families go through: start recognizing there's a problem, maybe being in a bit of denial, and then doing what they unfortunately feel is one of the hardest things to do, confront and oftentimes cut off a loved one.

Neve Campbell (Julia Salinger): I think we all knew it was going to go there at some point. The Salingers were brave, in their way.

Wolf: Amy Lippman told me she had friends who called her during the course of that season with concern. "I hope the drinking that's happening is intentional and is a story, because it's irresponsible otherwise." Because the drinking didn't look like a story, it was just what that character was doing. Obviously, it was a little disturbing because he was underage. But it also felt a little reckless, like he was self-medicating, emotionally.

Steven Robman (director): Chris and Amy were spectacularly careful about laying the foundation for watching him slowly disintegrate, so the idea for an intervention didn't have to be pulled out of their noses for this one episode.

Lacey Chabert (Claudia Salinger): This episode was hard. The Salingers went through a lot of grief! We cried for a week straight.

Party of Five
Claudia makes the call | Fox

Keyser: I didn't know how good it would be, the terrible moment when Claudia has to call Bailey and lie to him [to lure him to the house], and then she turns to everyone and says, "Shame on you."

Chabert: It was an incredible challenge, because I had never dealt with anything like that in my real life. And Claudia was so conflicted about getting Bailey help. I think her having to deceive him, and get him over there, and feeling sort of used because of that, was a huge conflict.

Tamara Taylor (Grace Wilcox): We don't always have to be precious when being given direction -- the whole crew can hear, I don't mind. But in this case, it was really thoughtful and respectful when Steve Robman took Lacey off to the side to whisper in her ear. And then she came in and did a take that was completely different. He was hands on, but very sensitive.

Robman: I wish I could work every day with Lacey Chabert! One thing I've seen often in teenage actresses, they figure out how to cry on cue, and then they go to that, too soon and too many times. You often have to talk them out of that, to convince them that struggling to keep composure is more interesting than weeping. Lacey was much more mature from an acting point of view than her chronological age would indicate. I wouldn't be too surprised that she was being careful not to go too far, and then I probably said, "OK, time to pull out the stops. Go ahead, see what happens."

Chabert: Even though I didn't understand a lot of the subject matter, I knew it was something that people would relate to.

Party of Five
The call sheet for an emotional day | Courtesy of Steven Robman

Robman: I would have loved to shoot sequentially. We [came] very close, but we were not quite able to pull it off completely.  

Lippman: It's hard to shoot when it's seven people. The geometry, what looks you want to capture, all of that needs to be choreographed.

Robman: From a technical point of view, I was faced with having more people in each scene than you usually have. I don't do storyboards, because I can't draw. I do notes with a ground plan, but even so, that's a little tricky. So I asked the crew guys to make me full-size plywood cutouts of each of the actors, with a little base so they could stand up, and then little smaller ones for being seated, since the plywood figures couldn't bend to be seated in chairs. I had six or seven of these made, and six or seven of the seated versions. And using my little plywood models, I set up the scene: "OK, he's going to be standing there, she's going to be sitting there. No, that doesn't work…" You can imagine, if you put somebody in the living room, there could be people sitting or standing all around him. I don't believe I had ever seen another intervention episode when I started this. I didn't have anything to use as a model or as something to avoid. I just did what seemed to make sense. Some of it is dictated by the shape of rooms and furniture. I soon realized that you needed to have this wall of people versus Bailey. One lonely figure, and this tsunami of family members on the other side, a large blocking mass pressuring him. This was a visual metaphor that I had stumbled on, and it also made the shooting a little simpler.  

Lippman: Plywood cutouts? I didn't even know that he did that!

Robman: This was the first and only time I've ever used cutouts for my composition planning. I usually don't have to. I wouldn't be surprised if one of the directors laughed and said, "Robman and his cutouts, Jesus! Get me out of here!"

Keyser: It's the unity of time and space. We were doing something not precisely in real time, but mostly in real time, and mostly in one small location. It does make it feel pretty intimate. It adds to the intensity of it. They're trapped.

Party of Five
Bailey learns what's up

Robman: One of the things that we talked about it, and in terms of real interventions as well, was how do you keep the person who is being intervened upon from just saying, "Fuck the bunch of you, I'm leaving!"? So we had to be careful about the way the pressure is orchestrated. You had to be able to believe that whatever stuff was bearing down on him from the rest of the family would keep him there, despite him fighting the fact that this was even necessary. You wanted to feel the sense that everyone was stuck there.

Wolf: Bailey was basically like a caged animal.

Lippman: One thing I think the show did pretty well was that we thought about the roles kids play in families. There's the responsible kid, the irresponsible kid, the apologist, the maternal figure. It actually made sense that Bailey would have a problem he wouldn't reveal to people, that he could defend as something he deserved as recompense. It's a flawed defense, but you could understand him clinging to it. It seemed super specific to the character and the circumstances.

Robman: Scott and I would talk about how to orchestrate his anger, so that he wouldn't peak too soon.    

Lippman: Most of the cast would be laughing, fooling around, and Scott would just be in the corner of that living room, his head in his hands, his hands over his ears, rocking back and forth, trying to focus on what he needed to do.

Topolosky: We allowed the time. It wasn't just another episode. We talked about it in a production meeting: "How do we give the actors space when they need it? Let's not just rush in when we say cut." If you have to make a detour 50 miles to get to a tear, take it!

Party of Five
The kitchen scene | Fox

Robman: There's a scene in the kitchen where they all explain their points of view about the problem, and Bailey tells them all to fuck off. That's the scene that I put on my reel.

Keyser: For our real-life intervention for my friend, we had a planning meeting with a specialist, and one of the things he said was, "If you have any secrets from each other, tell them now, because they're going to come out." One of the people there had to tell his wife that he had cheated on her, which is parallel to that story that Bailey tells about [Matthew Fox's character] Charlie cheating.

Wolf: Those are tactics that an addict winds up using when their drug of choice is being threatened. It helped to know that behavior came from the research of, and sometimes the experience of, the writers themselves. None of it felt arbitrary. For me personally, I have recovering alcoholics in my family, and my mother has actually spent a number of years as a drug and alcohol abuse counselor, and she was a great resource, actually. Even though I knew how much research the writers had done, I still found myself sometimes having a hard time justifying the character's actions, you know? I've never had a problem in my work being ugly, or mad, or mean, as long as I could find a way to justify what my character's doing. Even if the justification is sick or warped.  

Robman: If Bailey didn't have a point, you wouldn't have an episode. You have to have good arguments. And that in fact happens often in these interventions.   

Keyser: If you were by yourself, and you didn't know all the information, you could believe what Bailey is saying is true. At the same time, he turns, one at a time, on each of the people who are there to confront him, and tells a truth about them that is as painful and in some ways related to, or flips on its head, the question of who is taking care of whom. The thing that is true about Bailey and other alcoholics is that they're smart. They have developed excellent defense mechanisms. The reason you all need to be together is that you need to be able to circle them and say, "No, you can explain this event, but you can't explain this in light of these other three events. I know you're going to attack me, but you can't attack all of us, because then it's about something other than our fault." So all of those things came out of or were influenced by my experience at the real life intervention.

Party of Five
Julia, Charlie, Grace, and Joe attempt to listen | Fox

Wolf: Just standing in that room, just decimating everyone in his family… Look, I had plenty of dysfunction in my house growing up, but I never had the need to stand in front of the people that I love most and do an inventory of what was wrong with them and make them feel worthless. I couldn't… I needed to understand how that's possible. And so I would have these conversations with my mom, and I'd go to Al-Anon meetings, just to try to have in my mind an understanding of all of it. Understanding how a good person who genuinely loved everyone he was talking to could say the most hurtful things he could think of.

Lippman: When we ticked off one character after another and what their response would be, we were very careful in laying out who's the most hurt, who's the most angry, how are they responding in ways that's really specific to who they are and what they needed from him. It was a little like playing chess.

Keyser: It's not implausible, but it would never have worked in Season 1. It works in Season 3 because you've spent so much time with them. "Yeah, I was there. I saw that."

Campbell: That moment was tough for Julia, for sure. Not tough for me. It's a weird relationship you have, when you empathize with a character, you know what I mean? I felt sorry for Julia. I felt sad for what she was going through.

Keyser: It's a great moment when Claudia goes, "What?!" Daring him to attack her, too.

Robman: You might not be able to salvage Bailey, you might not be able to feel any sympathy for his problem, or empathize with what he's going through, if he attacked his little baby sister the way he attacked all the others.

Wolf: No one in the room shied away from any of it. I think everybody just committed to showing all of it, not trying to clean it up. If I was in there trying to kind of do this in a Bailey, nice-ish kind of way, it would have undermined the story, and in a way, it would have been less sympathetic. The thing that was sympathetic was seeing someone who was lost. Someone who has lost control of their life, and their ability to choose, and their ability to really be who they would want to be, if they weren't addicted. And so in the throes of his addiction, he lost the ability to be himself.

Party of Five
Sarah hears Bailey out | Fox

Keyser: We began to think that Bailey's alcoholism might be connected to his father, and it all seemed to click.

Robman: Joe tells Bailey, "Guess what? Your father was an alcoholic." There are often family secrets that you have to depend on someone outside of the family to tell you.

Lippman: That revelation wouldn't mean as much in a story where the father was present. It allowed us to tell a child's perspective on who a father was, without the father being able to rebut it.

Robman: Sarah goes out to see Bailey sitting in the dark in the backyard, and he says, "Claudia got her musical ability, Julia looks like her, Charlie looks like him, and what did I get? I got alcoholism." It rips me up every time I see that. I thought Jennifer Love Hewitt was an extremely gifted actress as a teenager. I thought she did wonderful work.

Topolsky: Bailey's journey, finding out about his father -- the need for knowing, the anger of, "Why didn't they tell me?" -- it just mirrors life so much.

Party of Five
Claudia confronts | Fox

Wolf: I can still get choked up thinking about this, when Claudia squares off against Bailey. Lacey is one of the sweetest human beings on the planet, and Claudia is the most vulnerable character. Bailey has lashed out against everyone, but he has spared this person who he would die a thousand times for, and this beautiful little face in front of him is saying, "If you want to keep doing what you're doing, you're going to have to say that you're willing to hurt me."   

Keyser: Having Claudia say, "I love you the best," it had a lot of weight. We waited three seasons for someone to have a statement like that.

Chabert: In the end, she says, "I'm not going to talk to you until you get help." She had to take away her own love for him.

Taylor: I was beyond impressed with how that little girl could, over and over again, get that level of emotion. We shot it about 30 times, and every single time, she was that good. She had an emotional access the likes I had not seen before in a child. I remember Lacey being so lost in that moment that her nose was running. Tears, nose, everything was going, and she was absolutely un-self-conscious about any of it. It was pretty hard not to bawl when you saw Lacey crying.

Chabert: I remember crying, and being exhausted. Being completely exhausted.

Lippman: Claudia was completely devastated that Bailey would not do this for her, that she is not enough. But we never wrote the intervention with the intention of being successful in that moment. It's only a successful intervention on those reality shows if it leads to the person saying, "OK, I'm going to rehab right now." The way we wanted it, the less clichéd ending, we thought it was more interesting for the character to be more entrenched in his addiction.

Party of Five
Bailey's about to bail | Fox

Wolf: Years later, I still have people tell me, "Hey, I teach a drug and alcohol abuse class, and we talked about this," or, "We watched this in my health class." So, yeah, I'm as proud of that as anything, mainly because of the commitment to it feeling honest, and not the least part of that honesty is the time that something like that takes to evolve, and the impact that it has on that person who's gripped by it and their family and their friends. It was just a really cool way to tell the story.    

Keyser: We knew it was the high point of the season.   

Robman: To this day, Chris Keyser and I can't believe that Scott Wolf was not nominated for an Emmy for that episode.

Topolsky: I don't know how many emails we got saying, "This happened to me. I understand." We may not cure cancer or alcoholism, but we certainly provide tools that make them human in a way that no doctor can.

Lippman: This doesn't happen very often -- where the story comes together, the acting comes together, the network support comes together, and everything becomes perfectly aligned. When you know you've made something that's better than you ever thought it could have been in your head, it's very special and rare and satisfying.

Need help finding something to watch? Sign up here for our weekly Streamail newsletter to get streaming recommendations delivered straight to your inbox.

Jennifer Vineyard is a regular contributor to Thrillist and also writes for The New York Times.