Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Fall Season Round-Up (Part 2): No Ordinary Family

NOTE: This piece was originally published on Critics at Large on December 8, 2010. If you wish to comment, please do so on that page.

Today, we continue with my mid-year review of the new fall television season. Back in early September, I listed several new shows from
this current fall TV season that I planned to watch. Yesterday I wrote about Outsourced, a new comedy series that surprised me by exceeding almost every expectation I had, and next time I’ll write about Terriers, a recently-cancelled series which more than met every high expectation I might have had for it. Today however I’m writing about No Ordinary Family, a sci-fi/comedy/drama which despite its imaginative premise and talented cast has disappointingly fallen well below my expectations.

ABC's No Ordinary Family
In No Ordinary Family (ABC, CTV), we meet an average and mildly dysfunctional American family that survives a plane crash in the Amazon rainforest and emerges with superpowers. Prior to the crash, the Powells were drifting apart: the parents were communicating less and less with one another and with their two high-school age kids. All of this however begins to change after the plane crash. In fact, what becomes quickly apparent is that these new powers seem designed to fill in the gaps in their personalities, bolstering them in precisely the ways that would fix their individual weaknesses. And so Stephanie, a wife and mother (Julie Benz) who works long hours and can’t find time to spend with her family, is given the gift of super-speed; Jim, a husband and father (Michael Chiklis) whose career choices have left him feeling emasculated, develops super-strength and near physical invulnerability; Daphne (Kay Panabaker), a typically self-involved teenage girl who rarely looks up from her cell phone, finds herself able to read minds; J.J., a teen boy (Jimmy Bennett) who struggles in school because of an undiagnosed learning disability, is given vast intuitive intelligence, and so on. While on paper this may seem to promise a nice poetic balance for the series, it is this initial decision that leads the series to fall flat from a dramatic standpoint.  We are introduced, albeit for about 5 minutes, to a family with real issues that most viewers can identify with, but then just as quickly the show cheats both the characters and the viewers of any genuine engagement with any real, human struggles, inadvertently undercutting much of the potential emotional realism of its stories and characterizations.

Misfits on Channel 4 (UK)
As I watched the show develop these past several weeks, it was difficult me not to measure it against Misfits, a recent British TV series I wrote about a few weeks ago. While Misfits shares a similar conceit (ordinary people accidently developing superpowers), that’s where the comparison unfortunately ends. On Misfits, these new abilities don’t make them better or more balanced, but quite the opposite. The characters’ prior imperfections and flaws instead are inflated: the powers are outward, material extensions of themselves. And that means that when they are struggling with the gift/curse of their powers, what they are really facing is themselves, and so each story only gives the viewer greater access to who they are and who they continue to be. Compare this to No Ordinary Family, where instead of seeing a teen boy struggle with the challenges of living with a learning disability, overcoming or suffering through it by his own actions and decisions, we get a boy who is suddenly excelling. A nifty ironic reversal perhaps, but the gifts came at no effort on his part, and his new abilities aren’t him. (While this issue is true for every member of the family, to be fair to the show J.J. is shown to suffer much more with this reality than the others.)

Julie Benz and Michael Chiklis
The series is often frustrating in precisely the way in which Happy Feet (Warner Bros.’s computer-animated feature from 2006) was, for me, a profoundly depressing and bleak experience. In between delightful penguin renditions of American pop songs and the vividly reproduced Antarctic snowscapes, the cartoon also paints a deeply pessimistic portrait of the true (and often hidden) costs of human progress on that region—in this instance, the deadly impact of overfishing on the native penguin population. And that is precisely the problem: the crisis the film illustrates in such dramatic and poignant fashion is all-too-real, but the only solution it offers is utterly fantastical. Leaving the theatre grim-faced and hopeless, all you can think is ‘Well, I guess we’re screwed then. After all, penguins can’t dance, can they?’ No Ordinary Family regularly affects me in much the same way. If you’re looking for a dramatization of the struggles of raising a sullen, texting-addicted teenager or the challenges of bringing new life into a waning marriage, this won’t be the show for you. After all, we’re not getting superpowers anytime soon, are we?

Jimmy Bennett and Romany Malco Jr.
Even nine episodes into the series, the show has yet to find that right balance between dark realism and fantasy, mixing sometimes saccharine-sweet family drama (elements perhaps more at home on ABC Family than ABC) with a cold, albeit cartoonishly violent, background story. The show’s best moments remain the relationships between the members of the family and their few friends who have been let in on the secret. Especially notable is Jim’s assistant DA friend and sometimes sidekick, George (Romany Malco, Jr), who is a reliable source of much needed fun and good humour for the show. But the baddy-of-the-week plots, with an escalating element of conspiracy intrigue, never quite meshes with the good natured core of the series—either thematically or tonally. (And I confess I’m still not quite recovered from the jarring and gruesome murder of a possible ally of Jim’s in an early episode.)

Still, speaking as someone who still tunes in to Smallville after ten ever-weakening seasons, I’ll probably keep on watching, despite the sinking feeling I get with every passing episode that this show will not realize even its own best ambitions.