Image Credit: Eric McCandless/ABCAn ordinary family of four travels to the Brazilian rainforest in a desperate bid to reconnect, but all they get out of the trip is a plane crash and extraordinary super powers. Such is the premise of ABC’s No Ordinary Family, which premiered last night. Most critics were pretty harsh on the show–but I rather enjoyed it. (Is it just me, or have TV critics become really cranky and wayyy too demanding lately? It’s like a TV show has to be The! Greatest! Thing! Ever! to get a positive review these days. Believe me, I wish everything could be Mad Men/Boardwalk Empire/Dexter awesome. But high-grade Chuck is just fine, too.) Back to the point: If the writers do their jobs right in the weeks to come, No Ordinary Family could be Modern Family meets Heroes, or a kinder, gentler, more expansive version of the Bruce Willis neo-superhero flick Unbreakable. My four reasons why I thought the pilot episode was so fantastic:
Because it brought its premise to life in a fun, clever and entertaining way, with relatable characters that I found myself immediately caring about. That’s pretty self-explanatory. I don’t know how to sound intellectually sophisticated about this, so I won’t: I just like this family. I can empathize and sympathize with the struggles of the parents in particular. Jim Powell (Michael Chiklis): Family man and proverbial Mr. Mom, trying to figure out how to make the whole concept of “family” work; but also a “failed painter” and “ineffectual police sketch artist” trying to find individual purpose and personal fulfillment. I was also struck by Stephanie Powell (Julie Benz), whose role as breadwinner in the family makes her the least popular person in her household, because the demanding, overwhelming nature of her work—and her considerable talent (she’s a brainy research scientist, trying to make the world a better place)—means she’s never around. “Working 80 hours a week just to disappoint her family,” as she put it. Familiar dilemmas; I look forward to seeing how they grapple with them.
Because I really enjoyed the superhero stuff—and I don’t care that The Incredibles did it first. And you know why I don’t care that The Incredibles did it first? Because the Fantastic Four did it 30 years before The Incredibles. (Casting Michael Chiklis, who played The Thing in the recent FF movies, helps make the point and helps the show tip the cap in the appropriate direction.) The “superhero family” conceit isn’t an idea that can be “ripped-off”–it’s an archetype to be reinvented and explored anew with changing times. The origin story was charmingly old school, a variation not just on the Fantastic Four, but also on The Flash, Spider-Man, Challengers of the Unknown and more, wherein exposure to a mysterious element leads to super-powers. Nothing fancy. Totally effective. Also a classic superhero beat that was well handled: Testing—and relishing–the newfound wish-fulfillment strength of super-powers. The scenes with Jim Powell at the batting cage and Stephanie at the racetrack were just fun. And I’m also intrigued by the mythology the show is layering into the drama. We learned that Jim, Stephanie, and kids Daphne (Kay Panabaker) and JJ (Jimmy Bennett) aren’t the only ones with powers in this world–and that Stephanie’s boss (Stephen Collins) knows it and is hiding and leveraging that knowledge for (presumably) evil purposes. Also? That climactic skirmish between Jim and the teleporting Nightcrawler baddie was pretty darn cool.
Because Michael Chiklis is awesome. It’s slightly jarring to see Chiklis play a softer, insecure kind of guy after years of Vic Mackey’s tough guy moral ambiguity on The Shield. (But of course, it was jarring to see Chiklis play Mackey after years of watching him on The Commish, too.) In fact, I think Jim Powell is even more interesting because of the Vic Mackey context that he brings to it by association. The juxtaposition and transition feeds into one of the major meta-narratives TV has given us over the past decade, from Tony Soprano in The Sopranos to Jack Shephard in Lost to Don Draper in Mad Men to Walter White in Breaking Bad: Deconstructing “manhood.” (I’ll let the smarter writers at Newsweek and The Atlantic explain the bigger-picture cultural trend of it all.) Regardless: Chiklis is the man, figuratively speaking. From The Commish to The Shield to now No Ordinary Family, we’re reminded that Chiklis is a pretty extraordinary actor who has that special something that all-time TV stars have–a quality his super-dad yearns for: an ability to connect quickly, easily, and deeply with an audience.
Because I’m buying the “family show” hype—but with a caveat. The ordinary family that lives under my roof trends a little geeky, as you might expect, but my kids have only recently become mature enough to handle some of the TV shows you’d find in the 8 PM hour. (They just turned 44, by the way.) (Kidding.) No Ordinary Family is almost perfect for us. Almost. Here’s my caveat. For a new program that has actually called itself as a “family show,” I was a little surprised by the language, plus the scene of Mom and Dad enjoying some afternoon delight, plus a teens-having-sex subplot. On one hand, as a parent, I’m grateful the producers are making it clear from the start the show’s potential range of subject matter. On the other hand, when I hear the words “family show,” I think: “Appropriate for kids under 10.” I’m not sure that pilot was appropriate for the under-10 set. Perhaps my thinking is antiquated. It’s certainly irrelevant to the business of television: Catering to the under-10 set won’t sell many ads for ABC. The good news for my kids–who were really excited to see No Ordinary Family–is that I’m willing to do this for them: Record the show; watch it on my own; and then watch it again with them the next day knowing exactly when and where to fast-forward, if needed.
What did you make of No Ordinary Family? Was it nifty enough for you comic book fans–or not geeky enough? Does it meet your definition of a “family show”? How do you even define the term? And most important: Will you be watching next week?