The premiere of No Ordinary Family, ABC's family superhero drama, featured lots of fun superhero action...but a lot of cliched family drama dreariness. This is definitely a work in progress, but there's a fun superhero show buried in here somewhere.
No Ordinary Family is actually about three different shows that were, at least in this episode, rather clumsily duct-taped together. Since the word "family" is right there in the title, we might as well start with the family drama aspect of the show. So let's go ahead and meet the stereotypically dysfunctional Powell family.
There's father Jim (Michael Chiklis), a police sketch artist and something of a stay-at-home dad who gave up on his real dreams long ago. There's mother Stephanie (Julie Benz), who has little time for her family because she's so busy with her groundbreaking scientific research. There's daughter Daphne, who's desperate to hang onto her boyfriend without having to sleep with him. And there's son JJ, who is struggling with what is almost certainly a learning disability. Did you get all that? Don't worry, because the show repeats this basic information at least a dozen times. This show seriously needs to learn how to trust its audience.
I'll admit I'm not really that interested in the family drama genre - a byproduct of being twentysomething and single, perhaps - but No Ordinary Family isn't even a good example of the form. It's so leaden, so obvious, so preachy, so black-and-white about who is wrong and who is right that it's tough to sit through the family-focused scenes without rolling my eyes. I also could have done without Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz telling each other how great at sex they are right before getting into yet another didactic argument about what's wrong with their marriage.
Stephanie Powell in particular is a brutally cliched character. Using a Bluetooth earpiece really needs to be retired immediately as lazy writer shorthand for "This person is too busy to love her family!", and we've all seen the exact same workaholic character a million times before in everything from Hook to Jingle All The Way to that one heart-wrenching Harry Chapin song. The writers also pepper her dialogue with a lot of random, clunky "science" terms that are meant to establish she's, well, a scientist, like when she drops the word "variable" in the middle of a sentence for no other reason than because that's what science people do.
Look, I'm venting, because when No Ordinary Family is bad, it's really bad. I'll give a show at least three episodes before I make any judgments either way, but so far the writers haven't given me any indication they have something original to say about the family dynamic. Perhaps when the characters start exploring their new powers together, we'll start to see something fresher, but all the pilot has to offer is a big steaming pile of cliched melodrama.
Right, so that's the part of the show that doesn't work. But the superhero aspect of the show is much more promising, particularly because Michael Chiklis seems to be having so much fun with it. The family heads down to Brazil as part of Jim's rather desperate attempt to turn Stephanie's research trip into a bonding experience, and there they take a plane tour of the Amazon. Their plane hits a massive storm and they crash into a lake, where they are exposed to the mysterious substance that gives them their powers.
I guess we should reintroduce ourselves to the now superpowered Powell family. Jim has super strength, partial invulnerability, and can leap a quarter-mile in a single bound. Stephanie has super speed, allowing her to reach speeds very near Mach-1. Daphne has telepathy, which at first is a completely overwhelming experience. JJ doesn't develop his powers until the very end of the episode, leaving his new-found super-intelligence something only he knows about. Once more, I could have done without the characters explaining over and over again why these powers make so much thematic sense for them (the mom who never has enough time is fast now! the dad who feels he's weak is strong!), but they're an interesting set of powers, and should give the show some fertile territory to explore.
I'm not entirely sure how intentional this is, but I think it's very cool that Jim's powers are almost an exact match for the original, Golden Age Superman of the 30s and 40s. (They're also more or less identical to those of Mr. Incredible, but I'm feeling charitable.) Chiklis and his district attorney buddy, played by the reliably fun Romany Malco, have a lot of fun exploring what his powers are, and his abilities make him a natural crime-fighter without making him entirely invincible. Throw in a few visual homages to the Golden Age Superman down the road (I can think of a couple obvious ones), and I'll be willing to forgive this show for a lot of its missteps. Jim's insistence on calling his leaps "bounds" was a nice first step.
I wasn't quite as wowed by the exploration of Stephanie's powers. The depiction of her super speed was cool, although it wasn't anything I hadn't seen elsewhere. I did like her chosen method of revealing her superpower, by asking someone if they remembered a little memento they owned and then grabbing it in a split-second. It felt faintly ridiculous the second time she did it, and I was honestly a bit disappointed when she didn't do this reveal while explaining to her distraught daughter why she believes her story of telepathy. Sure, it would have been completely inappropriate for the moment, but I would have laughed, and it would have given Stephanie her first interesting character trait. Anyway, I also liked that her lab tech confidante was a comic book fan, and the shout-out to Kitty Pryde was a nice touch.
Finally, there's a little bit of cop drama nestled in the middle of all this. When you see police procedural elements on shows that aren't primarily police procedurals, they tend to be a rather boring afterthought. That was a recurring problem on Julie Benz's last show Dexter, and it's definitely the case here. Obviously, this was all just meant as a backdrop for Jim's vigilantism, but it felt even more rote than it needed to be, with a lot of very obvious platitudes shoehorned in about how it's hard to be a cop when violence is on the rise.
At least the crime story provided the one shocking revelation of the episode: that there are other superpowered people running around, and the criminal Jim was chasing is one of them. I'm glad the series introduced a little mythology and hinted at some more serialized storytelling in its first episode. I doubt it's going to be getting into any terribly complicated masterplots, but it's good to have it there, and it provides an infinitely more interesting area for the show to explore than why the teenagers are being moody and angsty this week, at least in this viewer's opinion.
I'd also like to put in a good word for the cast. Anyone who has seen The Shield knows how great an actor Michael Chiklis is - hell, anyone who has seen Rise of the Silver Surfer knows how great Chiklis is, and that's really saying something. I liked Benz quite a bit on Dexter, and though I don't think she quite nailed Stephanie in this episode, I'm confident she'll get there. The kids seem fine, although it's difficult to tell whether they're irritating because of the way their characters are written or just because of their performances. And I like what I've seen of the supporting cast - like I said, Romany Malco is always a welcome presence, and I've been a Stephen Collins fan since It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia, with maybe a touch of Will Decker love thrown in.
Right now, No Ordinary Family is not a good show. Indeed, I can't even really call it an average show, considering how much time was wasted with the dreadful family stuff. But I do see potential here, and if the show focuses on the parts that are already promising - a whole lot of Michael Chiklis doing superhero stuff, basically - and quickly sharpens up the parts that aren't working - if they can find a way to connect the family crises to Michael Chiklis doing superhero stuff, then I'm on board - then I think this could be a solid, fun little show. That may not sound like much, but honestly, it's more than I expected. I'm not giving up on No Ordinary Family...yet.