A boy who'd been presumed to be dead for 10 years claims to be the returned son of a local politician
Credit: Jack Rowand/ABC
  • TV Show
  • ABC

Don’t let Joan Allen’s pinched grief and the similar child-napping plot confuse you; ABC’s The Family is not Room. There are no nuanced portraits of survivors in this pilot like the ones that flesh out the Best Picture nominee. The Family paints its characters — kidnapped youth Adam Warren and the people affected by his disappearance — in broad strokes, marking out the day he vanished as the day they each went wrong. The Family is Room as reported by the National Enquirer. What, were you expecting subtlety on a show that borrowed Scandal’s time slot for its premiere?

That’s not to say The Family is ever boring. It’s got Scandal and Grey’s Anatomy in its DNA, thanks to creator Jenna Bans. The pilot commences with a cracking cold open, which reminded me a lot of Orphan Black’s first bow. (Who could have turned that show off after seeing Sarah and Beth on the train platform?) After some indulgent voice-over from the cop who led the case, we see an emaciated teenager (Liam James), barefoot and dressed in ill-fitting clothes, ambling dazedly down the center line of a desolate street. A car passes, and he looks up at a billboard, the smiling face of the mayor welcoming visitors to Red Pines, Maine. The action jumps to 10 years previous, and it’s clear we’ll be leaning pretty hard on the flashback button from now on.

Claire Warren (Allen) and her family pass out flyers and beg for attention; Claire is running for City Council, and it’s her first time seeking office. Her husband, John (Rupert Graves), assures her she doesn’t “suck” at campaigning, their two older children bicker, and Adam, the youngest, reclines under a picnic table holding his ship in a bottle. The kids beg for reprieve from their work and head off. Willa and Danny have teenager business to attend to, Adam isn’t minded, and the nightmare scenario ensues. Frantic shouts turns into dozens of flashlight beams in the dark turns into a young officer telling the unraveling Warrens that they owe it to a still missing Adam not to doom him by falling apart. In the present, the teen makes it to the police station and stares at a newspaper clipping under glass; a sex offender was convicted for the murder of a local child. The teen asks to speak to an Officer Meyer and a friendly cop asks for his name. “I’m him,” he responds blankly, pointing to the smiling face in the frame.

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The pilot moves at a fast clip, and there’s little time to dwell on some important establishing moments. It’s heartbreakingly interesting, for example, that Adam’s return interrupts so many lives, when just 10 years ago all those lives were dedicated to finding him. Claire, as we know, is the Mayor. That City Council bid was successful and, though she probably would rather not think about it, boosted by public sympathy. John is an author and speaker who specializes in grief. Willa (Allison Pill) is her mother’s right hand, Type A and devoutly religious. And Danny (Zach Gilford) is a drunk, riding out his hangover in a motel bed with two women.

They convene at the hospital where Dina Meyer (Margot Bingham), now a detective, intercepts them. The DNA matches, Adam has been through some things, and by the way, would the Warrens be so kind as to put their own issues on the back burner in order to make their traumatized son more comfortable? But Adam slots quietly and easily back into the family, simply because he doesn’t speak or even react much at all. He’s good-natured, hungry, and polite, happy to be steered from one room to another. It freaks Danny out.

NEXT: Ch-ch-ch-changelings

Adam’s disappearance must have felt like a sentence to his family, but it really became one to their reticent neighbor, Hank. Andrew McCarthy plays the man like a caged animal and an easy target for the ire of an entire community. Young Willa tells Meyer she saw Hank in the park the day Adam disappeared, and then there’s the matter of an indecent exposure conviction. The search warrant stalls, and in a sequence that would have been much more exhilarating if her safety wasn’t assured, Willa sneaks into Hank’s house and finds one of Adam’s ships in a dresser drawer. (How was the product of a minor’s illegal search admissible evidence? Maybe we’ll find out next week, but I doubt it.) Adam’s reappearance earns Hank an instant pardon with full compensation, but he’s by no means a free man. His proclivities were tossed around in court and his face plastered on the news. No one even bothered to tell him his mother died while he was locked up. His whole life is a prison. The most riveting scene in the pilot comes when John approaches Hank in the grocery store. Hank refuses to give John the absolution he’d been casually gunning for. “You’re sorry for what happened to me? You happened to me. Your family happened to me.”

Hank is only a fraction of the monster that the state made him out to be. Adam’s resurfacing means there’s a full-fledged monster still out there. Meyer presses Claire to allow her to interview Adam immediately. She agrees, as long as his “shrink” is present. That’s an oddly dismissive term for a woman whose child has endured unspeakable abuse. That “shrink,” by the way, gets one line in that scene, proving that we’re not here to talk about recovery in any real way. Adam answers Meyer’s questions in oddly poetic terms, making strange visual associations. The man’s face “was like gravel.” Sometimes, when the man would visit him, he could see “a red dragon” through the window. John and Claire shut the conversation down as soon as they hear reference to sexual violation, and whether that was out of pure WASP-y embarrassment or a strong protective streak, it’s jarring.

There’s something unsavory about creating watercooler television around this subject. Even as I found myself caught up in the mystery of Adam’s strangeness, I felt guilty for participating in the othering of victims. Danny sits back and notes each point at which current Adam deviates from the one they lost. He likes eggs now, for example, and he doesn’t remember how to get his precious ships in their glass enclosures. (You have to collapse the mast. You can’t imprison the ships without damaging them, even if that damage isn’t visible. Metaphors!) The episode is at its most irresponsible though when Danny asks Adam why he didn’t run, a suggestion of complicity that can stick to survivors. Danny’s suspicions are angrily rejected by his family, but I suspect it’s because they’d rather forget the whole thing happened.

The thrust of the drama is clear. The Family isn’t Adam’s story; the title is apt. John, Claire, Willa, and Danny were stunted by Adam’s kidnapping and assumed death. I can only hope that these characters will grow in complexity, because right now, they’re a set of post-trauma cliches: Claire as the frigid career woman; Willa as the closed-off overachiever she wrought; Danny as the perpetual screw-up; and John as the jilted husband who sought validation and comfort outside of his marriage. (“I’m married to a machine, not a wife.”) It’s an ensemble that deserves better and can absolutely handle it. (Joan Allen back on television, people!) When Adam returns, he pushes them further into these roles. The only scene that features real connection between Claire and John ends with a hidden paparazzo snapping a picture of their embrace and John accusing Claire of being fine with it. Moment: over.

NEXT: Fact-checking failure

If the writers are smart, they’ll take a cue from fellow small-town mystery Broadchurch and expand the circle of the show to include more of the Red Pines citizens who orbit the Warrens. Aside from Hank, the two most significant non-Warrens in the pilot are Detective Meyer and small-time journalist Bridey Howard. Meyer has the potential to be a commanding character. She’s ambitious, though there’s no evidence that she doesn’t care tremendously about Adam. Now she’s learning that the collar that made her career was a bad one. For even worse judgment, see her sexual relationship with John, which seems to have started not long into the original investigation and is rekindled quite furiously in an interrogation room. Still, neither her entanglement with the father or her professional embarrassment stop her from picking the ball back up and running with it as soon as there’s a new trail. Then there’s Bridey (Floriana Lima), who wears shorts to work and runs a “lesbian lifestyle blog.” She convinces her unscrupulous editor to let her head up the paper’s Adam Warren coverage because she’s got an in. Bridey was the girl stealing teenage Danny’s attention when Adam went missing, and she knows his weakness for booze and sex. His family doesn’t want to hear him out on the subject of Maybe-Adam, so a friendly ear may be all he needs to spill.

Bridey may not be an experienced investigative reporter, but even lifestyle bloggers know to check their sources. A quick call to the hospital sets up one of The Family’s three cliffhanger bombshells: The doctor who matched Adam’s DNA doesn’t exist, and there is no physical proof that this child is whom he claims to be. It’s a revelation that makes Adam’s repetitive late-night viewings of family home videos especially chilling. Next, Willa drops into a confessional and tells an unseen priest she’s about to give her first “true” confession in 10 years. And Detective Meyer drops onto the floor of the evidence room, reeling when she remembers that Hank’s (and not Adam’s) were the only prints on that bottle, just as if it were planted.

The superficially whole Warren family presents a united front to the community when Claire breaks her promise to drop her gubernatorial campaign and instead announces her candidacy. Meanwhile, out in the boonies, a man with a pockmarked face buys a paper and pulls out of a service station in a muddy pick-up, possibly on his way to a home with a view of those “red dragon” oil refineries. Does the existence of a possible perp corroborate Adam’s story? Alternatively, if someone’s using the memory of their son to terrorize the Warren family, which among them is the ultimate target? Could be any one of them; so far, they’re a fairly unappealing bunch.

Odds & Ends

  • Investigate the ice cream guy.
  • “Well it’s lovely to have you back home again, could you refrain from taunting the media?”
  • If only we lived in a reality where a woman would be forced to pay a man off to harass her in a bar instead of getting that for free, everywhere, always.

Episode Recaps

The Family
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  • ABC