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Image Credit: Adam Larkey/ABCOne of the things I have enjoyed most about No Ordinary Family so far has been how the show makes use of superhero conventions in overt and thematic ways in the context of a family drama — or rather, a drama about a family suddenly blessed/cursed with super-powers. Last night was all about secret identities, and how having and maintaining one requires the hero — an archetype of ethical, virtuous character — to lie and live a lie and do all of this lying with a skill that would make a super-villain stand and slow-clap with admiration. But the deception must be perpetrated, no matter how uncomfortable it makes the hero, for the sake of protecting the hero’s family, friends, and himself or herself.
No Ordinary Family found clever ways to explore and play with this conceit. Super-fast Steph conspired to hide her speedster ID from her employer after Global Tech took an insurance policy out on the prized egghead. Her ditzy, well-meaning lab assistant Katie — a little bit too ditzy in this ep — took it upon herself to pose as Steph and take the mandatory physical on her behalf. (Steph might be the company’s prized asset, but it seems not a lot of people can recognize her on sight — which isn’t too far-fetched, as viewers of Undercover Boss can attest.) Steph knew the lie wouldn’t fly — it actually made her situation worse, because if Katie’s criminal ruse to mask the truth about Steph’s radioactive/magical/mystery plant-enhanced blood sample was exposed, both of them would be fired — and so she had to swap one cover-up for another. Yet by episode’s end, Steph’s nefarious boss Dr. Dayton King became suspicious, and with that, the show’s slow-burning mythology storyline sizzled forward by centimeters…
Nobody told more fibs in the episode than Daphne, which was ironic, given she was the episode’s chief tub-thumper for total transparency. Desperate for a confidante to help her process her super-powered burden, she considered coming clean to a schoolmate, Megan, even though it put her family at risk. She tried to bond with her troubled chum by helping Megan’s work through her feelings about her parents’ divorce. But Daphne had ascertained her pal’s pain using her mind-reading abilities, and she blundered in trying to explain how she knew something Megan had never told her. Megan freaked, the friendship was imperiled, but in the end, everything was patched up — though Daphne ultimately decided to keep the truth of her Marvel Girl powers to herself.
The evening’s most inspired storyline belonged to JJ. The morally ambiguous super-learner — whose strangely sculpted haircut is slowly becoming a character of its own — started crushing on a girl named Sara who dug his gee-whiz math skills. She didn’t like JJ — not the way JJ liked her — but she didn’t do much initially to discourage his obvious romantic interest, especially since he was helping her enhance her own weak math game. JJ asked Daphne to scan the girl to find out if she liked him, but when Daphne learned the answer, she couldn’t quite bring herself to share it with JJ, as she wanted to spare his feelings. (FYI, Daphne’s dilemma is thematically similar the upcoming — and controversial — Ron Howard movie The Dilemma, in which Vince Vaughn wrestles with telling his best friend that his fiance is cheating on him.)
Daphne decided to deceive her brother, and told him that Sara only liked Jewish guys. And so JJ adopted a new, fraudulent identity, becoming (insincerely) born-again Jewish by using his super-powers to download Hebrew and become steeped in his Jewish culture. During a late-night tutoring session, JJ tried to put the moves on Sara by acting coolly kosher and suavely using terms like Shabbat, and when Sara wigged out, JJ realized his sister had lied to him. It was all very light and funny, but it also continued this disturbing trend in JJ’s story: So far, his actions have been indistinguishable from those of the garden-variety super-villain. Everything he’s done has been about What’s Good For JJ, and ethics be damned. He’s headed to the dark side, this one…
Jim Powell — rattled by the murder of Detective Cho in last week’s episode — continued to push deeper into the vigilante life, driven by a profound desire to bring order to his chaotic world. “What good are these powers if I can’t protect the ones close to me?” he complained to George while angrily slugging baseballs halfway across the ocean. Yet playing part-time Superman meant keeping his clandestine do-gooding secret from his kids, lest they fret unnecessarily, or worse, decide to emulate his behavior. (Parents—our everyday hypocrites.) It bugged Jim to lie, and I liked why his lying bugged him. It wasn’t because of some Ward Cleaver/fibbing-is-wrong moralizing. It was because he wanted his kids to know about his back alley crime-fighting so they would be proud of him.
One of the ideas the show has been pushing since its pilot is that Jim is driven not much by idealism but to shore up his shaky self-esteem (now we know where JJ gets it; also see: his career driven mom), and to feel like “strong man,” a poor cliché that flourishes in our culture because it is promoted to men (and women) all the time and in many ways… including via superhero pop culture. Jim’s insecurity has been reinforced by the messages he gets from his immediate circle of influence. Last week, it was the moms and dads at his kids’ school making cracks about him being a Mr. Mom. This week, it was Daphne callously remarking, more as a joke than an insult, that her artist father, a part-time police sketch artist, doesn’t catch criminals, he just draws them. Jim winced. (Maybe I’m forgetting my NOF mythology already, but is there a reason why Jim doesn’t just apply to become a police officer?)
And so he poured himself into the work of catching a band of crooks that were robbing wedding receptions. Among their victims: the Powells themselves. They had attended the wedding of the kids’ longtime babysitter, and the bad guys hit the reception and stole Steph’s wedding ring. Hulk Jim Wanted To Smash! Jim gave chase, jumped after the crooks, fell short. Hulk Jim Felt Emasculated! And so Jim had a mission to exorcise his male angst. He was assisted by his assistant district attorney friend, George, who has been pushing Jim into the superhero life, as he has become frustrated with and cynical about the justice system. They eventually caught the wedding reception rogues, in an action scene that was a little too cartoony for a show that tries hard to ground its fantasy in some semblance of realism. Jim casually threw a crook off what appeared to be a building that was at least eight stories tall. (Dig the slo mo Greatest American Hero flung-through-the-air shot!) The bad guy landed on a cop car and suffered next to no injuries. Please. The dude should have died. Also, it’s hard to believe that Jim would have been so recklessly violent. (Tangent: It would be interesting to see an episode in which Jim wrestles with the guilt and implications of putting a bad guy in the hospital after getting too rough with him.)
But I did appreciate a subsequent attempt at realism — something that most superhero comics totally gloss over. It always bugged me when Spider-Man would catch bad guys and leave them webbed up outside a police station without also leaving behind any evidence to help the authorities convict said bad guys. No Ordinary Family didn’t ignore that idea in last night’s episode, and so the cops had to release the wedding reception rogues because of insufficient evidence.
Now, I’ll be honest: I didn’t totally buy that. The bad guys were nabbed at the scene of the crime, and the cops found stuff that had been swiped from other wedding reception robberies — including Steph’s wedding ring. Still, I liked the effort, and the twist underscored Jim’s one-to-grow-on life lesson: This whole superhero thing can’t cure his male insecurity. There is no real “cure” for it, other than to accept your human limitations and live openly and honestly with the people who love you for who you are. Totally cornball, yet totally true. It’s implied in the promise that you make to your spouse on your wedding day — hence, the metaphorical significance of the ring. George returned the ring to Jim, and Jim returned home a better man. He confessed his secret life to his daughter and restored openness to their communication. Then he dazzled his wife with a romantic, humble date where they renewed their vows. Again, it was all very corny, but I am a very corny guy, and so I enjoyed the episode very much — the show’s most creatively successful articulation of its premise and dramatic identity to date.
Your opinion, however, may differ — feel free to express it in the message boards below. Did you like NOF’s “No Ordinary Ring”? Are you ready to call yourself a fan of the show — or do you feel like leaping up, up and away from it as fast as possible? Scribble!