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'No Ordinary Family': Cheaters never prosper... except when they have superpowers!

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Image Credit: Eric McCandless/ABCThe second week of No Ordinary Family served to show us how an ordinary episode of this so-called “family drama” will work: By using each of its mysteriously super-powered characters to explore aspects of a single theme suggested by its premise. Last night: Cheating! Is it ever permissible to break the rules, even for the sake of your loved ones or for the common good, and even when you possess abilities that make you special and set you apart from the typical self-centered, self-entitled schmo? Let’s take a character-by-character look at how the episode tackled the question:

Jim Powell

Power: Super-strong, super-tough, and super-leapy.

Superhero analog: Vintage Superman, who originally didn’t fly—he just leapt tall buildings with a single bound.

Sidekick? Yes! George St. Cloud, quippy assistant district attorney, who is pushing hard for Jim to embrace the guardian-angel life and clean the streets of villainy that slips through the cracks of the justice system. His cynicism—albeit packaged in a sunnier disposition—reminds me of Jimmy Smits’ vigilante DA in the third season of Dexter. Minus the serial killing.

This week’s extraordinary dilemma: Still chasing down bank robbers, but wrestling with the rightness and wrongness of being a rule-breaking vigilante. Just because you can be a self-appointed secret super-cop without any of the license, training, or accountability of an authorized law enforcement officer doesn’t mean you should be one, right?

Resolution: After debating the point with his super-speedster (and super-hypocritical) wife Stephanie, he temporarily gave up his super-hero dreams without reservation after an injury to Stephanie made him realize the life-threatening potential of what he was doing. But when can’t-quit George put himself in harm’s way with the bank robbers, Jim, with Steph’s blessing, bounded into action. His new rule for himself: Only help the cops chase after the “no ordinary” law breakers, like last week’s now-deceased teleporting bandit—and now Detective Cho’s telekinetic killer.

Stephanie Powell

Power: Super-fast! (But not so fast that she can’t take cell phone calls while moving in supernatural quicktime. I was kinda confused about the science behind all that.)

Superhero analog: The Flash, Quicksilver, Johnny Quick, The Whizzer—your basic speedster, but female. So Joanie Quick (but good!) or The Bionic Woman (minus the bionics).

Sidekick? Katie Andrews, Stephanie’s lab assistant at Global Tech and big comic book fan. Fave superhero? Kitty Pryde/Shadowcat of The X-Men. Currently trying to help Stephanie find the source of the family’s super-powers. Was there something magical in the water when they crashed in that lake in Brazil? Montezuma’s revenge, meet Montezuma’s blessing…

This week’s extraordinary dilemma: The hard-working, world-improving career gal scientist got some grief from the narrow-minded PTA moms who didn’t think she was much of a muffin-baking homemaker (and didn’t think Jim was much of bacon-bringer-homer father/husband/provider, either). Stung by their judgment, Steph was tempted to use her resources (super-powers and otherwise) to put on The Best Damn School Carnival Ever!, all while working her demanding full-time research scientist job.

Resolution: Trying to be Mrs. I Can Do It All only made her fall down and go boom. Literally. She followed through with her carnival commitments, and eventually embraced the idea that she and Jim have nothing to prove to anyone—but she couldn’t deny her husband a chance to get some dunk tank vengeance on a guy who mildly insulted his manhood. (These Powells! So touchy!) Stephanie’s handling of the whole “with great power comes great responsibility” thing was pretty messy—which made it really provocative. With no established rules or public accountability for their extraordinary situation, the Powells only have themselves to decide their ethics—and they may not be up to the challenge. Stephanie always seemed to be changing the rules, for herself and for Jim, but I got the sense that she herself was troubled by the implications of her moral relativism. In the end, she reluctantly gave Jim her blessing to use his powers to pursue his self-fulfillment–but rededicated herself to the work of learning how they all got their powers so they can rid themselves of them.

JJ Powell

Power: Super-smart—but there are limits. He can instantaneously glean knowledge—but he can’t always retain it, and he doesn’t always understand it. He can decode and he can download, but he’s no Einstein.

Superhero analog: Lex Luthor, Brainiac, and all the evil eggheads of comicbookdom. Yes, evil, because…

This week’s extraordinary dilemma: It kinda looks like JJ is going down the super-villain road, doesn’t it? He used his abilities (which he’s still keeping secret from Jim and Steph) to ace math tests he used to routinely bomb. His improvement at school got his father beaming with pride—and he liked that feeling. So when his teacher accused him of teaching—and when his father entertained the possibility—JJ was stung and hurt; it bothered him that no one believed that he lacked even the potential to be smart on his own.

Resolution: JJ was encouraged by his sister to be less conspicuous with his achievement, so he decided to be less consistently stellar, mixing in some B- work in with the A+ stuff. His teacher remained suspicious. By episode’s end, JJ still hadn’t come clean to his father about his super-gleaning abilities, and we were left to wonder where he was headed. We saw him reading Pascal (hidden inside a Wolverine comic book), so perhaps we should be encouraged that his powers have inspired him to a love of learning. At the same time, his moral compass is kinda warped. Like his father, but more so, JJ is hooked on the self-empowerment and self-realization that his powers are bringing him. That’s not so bad. But the boy’s bitterness and secretiveness and diminished self-awareness are worrisome. Is he the next Reed Richards—or the next Dr. Doom?

Daphne Powell

Super-powers: Super-mindreading!

Superhero analog: Marvel Girl of The X-Men

This week’s extraordinary dilemma: Slightly off-topic from the cheating theme, although if you want to be fancy and heavy-handed about it, you could say Daphne was cheating herself. She’s the one member of the Powell family who considers her ability more a curse than a blessing and has yet to find a useful application for it. Part of her problem is that she’s having trouble controlling her power, as she can’t walk into a crowd without becoming flooded with everyone else’s thoughts. Which makes sense. She’s a teenager, beset with crippling self-consciousness. Of course she would be vulnerable to incidental psychic assault; she cares way too much about what other people think about her. This is the kind of clever, relatable, character-driven approach to this far-out premise that gives me hope that No Ordinary Family has the goods to be truly engaging drama and viable weekly storytelling machine…

Resolution: But can they ease-up the easy, cornball resolutions? Stephanie assuaged her daughter’s intense angst with a kinda-cheezy Just Listen To Yourself homily during a Ferris wheel chat. In general, I’d prefer slightly less schmaltz from the show, and would prefer to see the life lessons dramatized, not preached. Still, I do appreciate the thematic richness of the show (it wouldn’t be as rich without so much on-the-nose verbalization of its big points), and I do like that the show took an accelerated approach to Daphne’s dilemma so it could move Daphne on to more interesting ruminations on her character and power.

A few overall thoughts:

1. I’m interested in the slowly evolving mystery concerning the origin of the powers and the menace of Stephanie’s boss and his creepy telekinetic assassin, aka The Watcher. Yes, it is very Heroes (Global Tech = Primatech Paper Company? The Watcher = Horned Rim Glasses?), but NOF’s derivative-ness doesn’t bug me much. However, it does seem to me that these darker “mythology” scenes belong to a totally different show, one that NOF perhaps doesn’t really want to be. You know, like Heroes. Might there be an identity crisis looming for this show? Speaking of which…

2. I saw a lot of Tweeting last night from people who thought Detective Cho’s murder-by-telekinesis was rather bleak, and certainly not fitting for a “family show.” I see the point—it certainly goes to the point we debated last week that the definition of “family shows” isn’t what it used to be—but as a parent, I wasn’t terribly bothered by this violence. It was more evocative than explicit, as the murder happened off camera. And besides, my kids (9 and 7) have seen all six Star Wars movies—they’ve born witness to the dismemberment, beheading and immolation of beloved if morally ambiguous pop culture icons!—so I think they can handle last night’s episode. CLARIFICATION (1o AM PST): In light of some message board posts, I’d like make a four things clear: 1. The main point of this paragraph is to continue discussion of the issue raised last week, about how this show, which labels itself “a family show,” may not conform to everyone’s definition of that nebulous, ill-defined term. 2. If it sounded like I was saying that what’s acceptable and not acceptable for my under-10 kids should be acceptable and not acceptable for all under-10 kids, I’m sorry: I don’t agree with that sentiment, and it wasn’t my intention. 3. I will never again bring my children into this conversation. 4. But yes, for the record, I am actively trying to grow my kids into a pair of sexually repressed yet unapologetically bloodthirsty psychopaths. Something wrong with that?

The floor is now yours. Last week, it seemed most of you were pretty positive about No Ordinary Family. Still feel that way? Or did last night’s episode feel little more corny, a little more forced, a little less compelling? Yes, that was a pretty leading sentence, because I admit, parts of the episode felt that way to me. And yet, the day after, I’m not bothered, and continue to find the show to be endearing and entertaining. I’ll be here next week. Will you?

DON’T MISS: Embedded below, listen to the first edition of EW.com’s TV Insiders podcast. Dalton Ross, Michael Slezak, Annie Barrett, Michael Ausiello (who also gives his picks for best and worst new show of the new season), and yours truly break down the week in television, and present it to you in an easily digestible audio format. Or click here to download TV Insiders to your MP3 player!