By Darren Franich
Updated April 06, 2011 at 02:58 PM EDT
Richard Cartwright/ABC

No Ordinary Family debuted last fall with high expectations. It had a catchy concept: Typical sitcom-ready family — adorably lunkheaded loser dad, way-out-of-his-league brilliant wife, two perpetually annoyed teenaged children — get superpowers, and shenanigans ensue. It wasn’t the most original idea, but with a good cast and a lighthearted tone, Family‘s early episodes had a fun vibe that didn’t really feel like anything else on television. The superpowered special effects drama felt secondary to the character drama — i.e., the kids discovered that having the power of telepathy and super-intelligence didn’t necessarily make high school any less hellish. But the show took a serious wrong turn somewhere, and watching the season finale last night, I realized exactly what happened to No Ordinary Family: It became Heroes. And not good-exciting season-1 Heroes, or even silly-messy season-2 Heroes. No Ordinary Family took a swan-dive straight into season-3 Heroes territory, and the show never really recovered.

Season 3 of Heroes, you’ll recall, featured various shadowy figures working for a blandly evil Very Big Corporation of America. On Heroes the Big Bad was Robert Forster; on No Ordinary Family, it was Lucy Lawless. They were essentially after the same thing: Reducing the protagonists’ special abilities into an easily-injectable formula. They even had a similar endgame in mind: As we learned on last night’s finale, Lucy Lawless’ big plan was to build an army of supers, just like Forster, although Lawless decided to use convicted criminals, perhaps as an homage to Con Air.

The problem with this story, which formed the backbone of the first half of the season and then basically took over the show’s frontbone in the last few episodes, is that it pushed aside the most interesting part of Family: the actual family. I think Chiklis, Benz, Kay Panabaker, and Jimmy Bennett all worked great together, but by the season finale, they were mostly just there as super-powered fill-ins. No Ordinary Family could have been a fun, incisive family dramedy — Modern Family with super-strength — but it decided to become a full-on sci-fi mythology/adventure.

The problem is that, here again, Family opted to imitate Heroes‘ worst instincts. There was a plotline about amnesia. There was an episode about time travel. There was a shapeshifter who could basically pop up anywhere at any time. Said shapeshifter was actually brought back to life by some magical serum, which meant that death was basically meaningless in the Familyverse. (This was proven again last night, when Chiklis’ Jim was shot three times and left to die … but, look at that, the cinoxate power-blocking serum wore off, and he was a-okay. Hooray for plot contrivances!) And there were sci-fi moments that simply didn’t pass the test: On last night’s episode, a man who could shoot electric bolts out of his hands was somehow electrified, which seems roughly comparable to killing the Human Torch with a zippo lighter.

There was a lot to like about the show. Romany Malco and Autumn Reeser were so good as superhero sidekicks that they practically seemed to be starring in their own show. Whenever the show cut through the bargain-X-Men plotting and focused on the main foursome, it really did seem to find its footing. Unfortunately, the show has had pretty low ratings, and the cast is already looking for other work, so it seems like last night’s episode might be the last we’ll see of No Ordinary Family.

I kind of like how the show went off on a huge, huge cliffhanger — with superpowered convicts racing into the world (oooh, a man with cats’ eyes! Good power!) and a man from the NSA telling Jim and Stephanie, “The government needs your family’s help.” But I’m intrigued to see what Family fans felt about the ending. Cheated? Frustrated? Am I being too hard on the show’s mythology? And if you think so, can we at least agree that Global Tech sounds like an SNL sketch?

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich