In a disappointing hour, Daphne gets saddled with a hokey story arc, while J.J. gets knocked off the path to villainy

By Jeff Jensen
October 27, 2010 at 04:33 PM EDT
Michael Desmond/ABC
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We begin with a convoluted analogy that Brett Favre might appreciate, and not just because last night’s episode of No Ordinary Family was all about ethics, honesty, and allegations of inappropriate sexual conduct. My tortured comparison: The episode, entitled “No Ordinary Quake,” was like a high-powered football offense that receives the ball and develops a really promising drive toward the goal line—a few great plays, several first downs, a coach’s challenge that goes their way—only to stall after two sacks and an incomplete pass and has to punt the ball away. To be more plain about it: Last night was the first time this season that this solidly-produced, always-appealing dramedy left me feeling a little disappointed.

“No Ordinary Quake” was yet another riff on what is becoming one of the show’s go-to themes. Jim Powell spelled it out for us. “Honesty is more complicated when it comes to our powers,” the Indestructible Man said. And so it went that we got storylines about the tricky business of secrets—acquiring them, keeping them, doing the right thing with and by them. (The conspicuous Pride and Prejudice reference was especially instructive here.)

Mind-reading Daphne thought she had learned a big one when she happened upon a fellow student having an intense, tearful conversation with a teacher at a coffee shop. She used her powers and caught a stray thought that led her to assume that her school had a Mary Kay Letourneau situation on its hands. But Mr. Robbins wasn’t sleeping with Olivia—he had actually just terminated a slightly less egregious, short-lived dalliance with her mother, and the break-up wasn’t going well for anyone. Yet Daphne became convinced of her erroneous interpretation and tattled on the teacher via anonymous tipster note to the principal. This tepid conflict intensified as far as it could go, then petered out as the truth was made known and common sense prevailed. Mr. Robbins kept his job, Daphne apologized, everyone learned a lesson.

I think it’s time No Ordinary Family took Daphne to the next level with some more interesting, less Afterschool Special-ish stories. I’m also frustrated by how her powers work. You would think she could just tune into people’s heads and listen to the running commentaries that go on inside their brains. Instead, she can only “hear”—or only allows herself to hear—brief bursts of thought at any given time. That’s fine, but as it played out last night, this limitation seemed way too contrived. Ditto the deliberately phrased “thoughts” themselves, sculpted to lead Daphne to exactly the wrong conclusion yet capable of supporting the real truth. Just one more brain-scan, and I’m pretty sure Daphne would have sorted the whole thing out for herself. It was the super-powered gloss on a standard issue sitcom conflict (wasn’t this the basic premise of every episode of Three’s Company or Saved By The Bell?), and yawwwwn.

Meanwhile, Jim and Steph continued their respective investigations into the larger mythology of the show’s secret world of extraordinary people. With an assist from JJ, Steph and sidekick Katie decrypted Dr. Volson’s disc ‘o secrets, only to learn that… it needs more decryption. (Groan.) Meanwhile, Jim met another super-powered rogue living on the fringes of society, although I’m guessing her motivations are more desperate than nefarious: A woman named Rebecca Jessop, with the ability to produce concussive blasts of energy, i.e. “little earthquakes.” (I’d like to think the show was making a coy Tori Amos reference with her character.)

NEXT: The writers squander some interesting possibilities for J.J.

Rebecca was using her ground-shaking gift to rob drug stores and swipe epilepsy meds, possibly to help manage her super-powered condition. She also seemed to have a serious beef with shady Global Tech honcho Dayton King. Jim cornered Rockin’ Rebecca in a parking garage. An unmovable object vs. Irresistible Force stand-off ensued… and then the sinister telekinetic known as Watcher showed up to knock them out. He abducted Rebecca, but left Jim behind. And that was that. Does this mean, though, that King (via the Watcher) now knows that Jim also has powers? Does he suspect that all the Powells have powers? Has he always known? We don’t know: All those questions were left hanging. I felt like the episode was missing a scene—like an additional beat between King and The Watcher, in which they spoke villainously and ominously about the events of the episode. In other words, this storyline was setting us up for something significant—then suddenly decided to defer revealing that significance to a later date. In other words: Punt.

And then there was the biggest punt of the episode: JJ. I don’t know about you, but I really liked what the show had been doing with his character. I liked that he was keeping his super-brain a secret from his family. I liked his needy complexity: Here was a fragile guy who was totally abusing his power to gain the self-esteem boost he craved, and yet totally resented the suspicion that he wasn’t earning his newfound excellence through hard work and effort—which, of course, he wasn’t. This approach had a lot of potential for provocative storytelling. Were we watching the slow development of a super-villain? Alas, No Ordinary Family seemed to basically give up on all of this last night by having Jim and Steph finally discover his secret.

My guess is that the show finally recognized the flaw it could never resolve: Jim and Steph may be self-involved, but they were simply too smart to be so duped for so long by their son. In fact, I suspect a fair number of you were becoming increasingly bugged by JJ’s storyline, as it was beginning to make Jim and Steph look… well, rather stupid. (See: “The Idiot Plot.”) Nonetheless, in punting away this problem, one of the show’s most interesting ideas was lost. Perhaps there is a way to come back to it in the future, albeit with a different twist.

Before I sign off and let you discuss, a question to debate—maybe the most interesting question posed by last night’s episode. Do you guys share Jim’s belief that JJ would have been cheating if he had used his powers during the football game? My take: No. This isn’t a Superman situation. It’s not as if JJ’s abilities would guarantee victory for his team. Sure, JJ can use his super-brain to see patterns and angles, but it’s not like his gift diminishes the integrity of the game. He can see the right receiver to throw the ball to—but he still has to throw the ball, and the receiver still has to catch it. He can see the right gap to run into—but he still has to be run fast enough to avoid being tackled. When it comes to football, JJ’s super-human brain is something of a misnomer. He might be the smartest player on the field, but it’s not like his “unfair advantage” can’t be countered or even replicated. Yes, it might be better for JJ to not use his powers—but I don’t think he’d be cheating if he did. What do you think?

Finally, some choice lines (and bless Greg Berlanti, I do think No Ordinary Family is always swimming in them):

“Complicated? Inception made more sense.”

“Interesting tidbit! Most superheroes don’t have mothers. Most of them are dead or on their home planet or something like that.”

And on a very positive tip: I thought the Jenga-inspired opening sequence, with JJ identifying just the right fallen girder to remove to save the trapped woman in the store, was nicely done. Share your own thoughts below!

Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz headline a drama about an average family with superhero powers.
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