Tonight's No Ordinary Family placed our heroes in an unusual position, as they met a friendly but even more mysterious family with dark secrets of their own. It's an interesting idea...that the show had no idea what to do with.
"No Ordinary Friends" was not what I had been hoping for in No Ordinary Family's return. The show had some flashes of brilliance towards the end of its Fall run, and I was optimistic that the show had keyed in on the breezy, gently self-aware tone with flashes of real darkness that had produced some standout episodes last year. That wasn't what happened here. Instead, we got a lot of clichéd stories that didn't really have anything to say about each other, and didn't really gain that much from the presence of a superpowered family.
The episode did have one mildly interesting take on superhero conventions, in its examination of whether, as Jim puts it, "with great power comes great loneliness." It's a potentially powerful thought, but the episode didn't really want to address it, as the new family that comes into the Powell's orbit never actually takes an interest in uncovering their superpowered secrets. Indeed, the only reason the friendship unravels is that the Powells chose to befriend a major art thief, which seems kind of apart from the theme of superhero loneliness. But I'm getting ahead of myself.
The episode's story starts when Jim saves the life of Dave Cotten, played by guest star Rick Shroder. The grateful Cotten family invite the Powells over for a barbecue, and each family member quickly makes a connection with their counterpart. (The Cottens, for reasons of plot convenience, have a daughter and son the exact same ages as Daphne and J.J.) For Jim and Stephanie, Dave and his wife Michelle are the perfect adult friends, something they haven't really had since gaining their powers.
For Daphne and J.J., the Cotten kids provide some much needed advice and motivation for them to go after what they really want, as Chloe Cotten convinces Daphne to run for school president and Troy Cotten forces J.J. to get tough in defense of his quasi-girlfiend. Yes, Chloe and Troy are basically just plot devices meant to spur our main characters on in their personal journeys, Daphne towards winning a meaningless popularity contest and J.J. towards maybe getting some.
I realize I sound tetchy about these plots, and I don't enjoy being so hard on a show that, quite frankly, I'm still rooting for to find its voice. But the Daphne and J.J. stories just felt so boring and clichéd, and the episode didn't do anything innovative or offbeat to ease the tedium. There are some moderately clever ideas lurking on the fringes of the story - in particular, there's some fun to be had with the idea that, because Daphne can read people's thoughts and promise them whatever is on their minds, she's the perfect politician.
But the episode doesn't even offer anything somewhat interesting like that. Instead, I think we're actually supposed to care about Daphne running for school president, which just isn't going to happen. I didn't care about student government when I was in high school - and I even launched my own epically unsuccessful campaign once - so I'm definitely not going to care about it now, particularly when I could be watching Michael Chiklis punch things.
Speaking of Jim, the main plot concerns a string of high-level art heists that happened to occur in all the same cities the Cottens used to live. Jim and George suspects Dave may actually be the art thief, but the truth is far more (well, slightly more) shocking: it's his wife. I'm not entirely convinced by this twist, considering the masked thief in the art museum really looks like a man, but at least it does set up a slightly interesting conflict in which Stephanie has to decide what to do with her art-thieving new best friend.
As for Stephanie's old best friend, Katie is preparing to get intimate with her boyfriend Joshua, but she's struggling with the fact that she's still a virgin. This, I'll admit, was a slightly more interesting storyline, if only because not many shows tackle the idea of a 30-year-old virgin, and the emotional stakes felt more real in this storyline than elsewhere in the episode. It's sort of weirdly sweet that the Watcher drew a moral line in the sand at deflowering Katie, considering he's already murdered multiple people and forcibly mind-wiped Daphne.
Oh, yes, I almost forgot: the mind-wipe. I originally praised the mid-season cliffhanger because I thought it was a bold move for the show, and that I was interested to see what they did with it when the show returned. Well...it turns out they used it as a convenient plot device to introduce the show's premise to new viewers, and then completely discard it. Which, I will admit, is arguably a decent decision to make for a show that's trying to build its popularity and keep things accessible to new fans, but isn't really the sign of an actually good show. Like I said, I'm still rooting for this show, but this week made it harder for me than others.