How are we supposed to feel about the family at the heart of The Family? Are we to see something of ourselves in these suffering and suspect characters? Are they a portrait of brokenness or a critique of phoniness? Does the show even care about its people? Created by Jenna Bans, a celebrated Desperate Housewives scribe and longtime Shondaland collaborator, The Family washes the family drama in an acid bath of soapy cynicism and scrubs too hard, yielding something crusty and ugly. Actually, that might be charitable. The show is a sour, formulaic expression of ABC’s penchant for buzzy, “sticky” potboilers — a trend that might be losing some traction, given the recent ouster of programming chief Paul Lee. Save your wine for Scandal. There’s nothing to tweet about here.
The Warrens of Red Pines, Maine, were happy once, but then horror blew into their lives and blew them apart, and they haven’t been right with themselves or with each other ever since. Claire (Joan Allen), now the mayor of Red Pines, poured herself into a political career. Her husband John (Rupert Graves) wrote best-selling books on grief and has become a sought-after expert on recovery. The strength they present to the public is cold and bogus, just like their marriage. Their daughter, Willa (Alison Pill), turned to religion and now works for mom, while their son, Danny (Zach Gilford), turned to alcohol and now drifts. Something needs to change if the Warrens are to move out of their respective dark holes. They need to be broken anew, so they can be put together right.
And then one day, something does change. Adam (Liam James), the youngest Warren, comes shambling home. Pale and gaunt, hollow and soiled, the boy limps into a police station and points to a photo and lays claim to a life 10 years dead. But how could this be? Adam was murdered. Nina Meyer, an ambitious police officer (Margot Bingham), caught the monster responsible: Hank (Andrew McCarthy), the Warrens’ neighbor, a sexual predator. Is this a miracle or cruel conspiracy? Maybe Adam got buried in Stephen King’s Pet Sematary. This is Maine, after all.
I can imagine an extraordinary television series coming from this premise. I can imagine a show that explores how trauma can hijack and destroy identity. I can imagine a show that explores how grief can shatter relationships and reshape lives. I can imagine a show that explores the disorienting process of reorientation for Adam and Hank after a decade of dehumanizing captivity. I can imagine a show that empathizes deeply with each of its characters and creates meaning with both its drama and its aesthetic. I can imagine that television series because that television series exists. It’s called Rectify. You should watch it if you haven’t already.
But The Family is not Rectify. (It’s not The Returned, either, the quality French import that approaches many of the same themes from a supernatural drama POV.) The Family is a shallow treatment of material that deserves more maturity, more empathy, more savvy about American culture. It shows capacity for interesting ideas but has only meager, cliché imagination for them. What does society owe Hank for his lost time and stained rep? How does he live amid the suspicions of his community? What does the simple act of grocery shopping look like for this guy? The Family thinks these thoughts but has little time or interest in developing them. Sensationalism abounds: ridiculous sex, contrived shockers, overheated melodrama propelled by sketchy character logic. There’s a jaded journalist (Floriana Lima) who writes “a lesbian lifestyle blog” who screws for scoops. Blurgh. Here’s another small example that really bugged me: Adam has apparently escaped his abductor, which means the villain is out there — a risk to the community — something you’d think Mayor Warren would care about. But she and John blanch at the cops interviewing the boy for information, allegedly out of concern for his fragility. Like there’s no way a parent can’t care about public safety and their child’s state of mind in equal measure. And isn’t Claire supposed to be some craven politico? Wouldn’t the quick capture of a predator help her campaign? Why not push her son to report all he knows, right now?
Adam isn’t much help anyway. His memory is fuzzy, and when he speaks of it, only cryptic riddles pass from his lips. What The Family really wants to be is a puzzle box, not a thoughtful rumination on difficult themes. Everyone has secrets, everyone is hiding something, even the ostensible victim. Adam is: A. a boy who was ritualistically raped for a decade, an ordeal that has left him with a tenuous hold on his own identity; or B. not Adam at all, but a hideous hustler masquerading as Adam; or C. both? Maybe this “Adam” is another kid who was abducted and raped for a decade at the same time as Adam, and the two look-alike boys grew up together in this shared hell, and this “Adam” is taking Adam’s place because he has nowhere else to go? Whatever the truth, The Family wants us to care more about Adam’s true identity (Adam Warren: the Dick Whitman/Donald Draper of sexual violence dramas) and whether he has a secret agenda (No! Adam Warren is the Nicholas Brody of sexual violence dramas!) than about the psychological and physical damage done to him. Put another way: It wants us to engage the drama with “doubt the victim” skepticism. This is risky business. Hopefully the show will earn this queasy gambit.
The cast isn’t bad. Adam is a problematic creation, but Liam James is mesmerizing. McCarthy is compelling as the raw and wounded Hank, a bitter soul who knows he’s not completely entitled to his anger. But they’re the only actors who thrive amid the ambiguity. Everyone else flails to connect with something real. There’s a scene when Claire tries to reconcile with John. He’s open to her entreaties, but then he flees from her after suspecting she’s simply playing to the paparazzi hiding in the bushes for the purpose of burnishing her image. Maybe she’s being sincere. Maybe she’s not. Maybe both things are true. I felt more confusion than complexity. John’s response to Claire is my response to The Family in general: I’m repulsed by it, not drawn in.
The Family’s structure also works against the show. The story flits back and forth between the time of Adam’s return and the time of Adam’s disappearance 10 years ago. We can’t be completely sure of anyone or anything in the present because our understanding of the past is still taking shape. The strategy cultivates intrigue but prohibits emotional investment, at least as the strategy is presently practiced. With so much ground to cover, then and now, we get short scenes that can’t dig all that deep and favor the most simplistic, familiar expression of character ideas. I can imagine this might improve over time, as the picture comes into focus. I doubt I’ll care enough to stick around long enough to find out.