Now tell me, does this in any way sound familiar?
It should. ABC's new family drama is a mishmash of Fantastic Four, The Incredibles and Heroes, and let's be honest, none of those were all that original to begin with. They were all built on a legacy of superheroes stories - comic books in particular - going back nearly a century.
The very ordinary family at the center of No Ordinary Family is comprised of dad Jim Powell, played by Michael Chiklis, who previously had a massive hit with The Shield, and who starred as The Thing in Fantastic Four. He works as a police sketch artist, constantly bullied by the "real" cops. His wife is Stephanie, played by Julie Benz. We know her from Rambo and The Boondock Saints II: All Saints Day. She's a successful scientist, and the one who brings home the cash, a source of tension and drama in the family. They have two kids, Daphne (Kay Panabaker) and JJ (Jimmy Bennett). That's right, you've entered a world where Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz can hook up and create Kay Panabaker. How's that for a fantastic setting?
Cue family vacation to reconnect, plane crash in a strange river in South America, and superhero powers for everyone. Jim is suddenly indestructible and can jump really high. Stephanie can run really fast. Daphne can hear other people's thoughts. And JJ gets really good at math. Jim quickly decides he wants to be an actual superhero, he enlists the help of a friend and soon he's out fighting crime. When Stephanie discovers her powers, she realizes that she can be a good mother again, something her career has prevented her from being, but now she's got more free time on her hands, since she can do everything faster. The kids mope around and have teenage angst... Cut to commercial.
No Ordinary Family is a family show. It's not just about a family, it's also for the family. The whole family. Everybody can join, because this show is so G-rated it'll make you vomit. Everything is clean and safe. Actually, to call it "safe" would be the same as describing Mount Everest as a "somewhat sizable pile of dirt". This world feels like those chocolate commercials where grandchildren run to their grandparent in soft focus, to tell them how important they are, or the airline commercials where the well-manicured dad watches the sunset above the clouds with longing in his eyes, while his children are down on the ground waiting for daddy to come home. This is a show where no argument is too big to be solved in the first scene after the break, and where every conversation ends with "I love you" or "I'm so proud of you".
The first and most obvious question is: Do we really need another superhero story? After watching the first two episodes of No Ordinary Family the answer would have to be a resounding "Hell no, and even if we did, this wouldn't be it." Now, don't get me wrong, this show has space to grow, but we know it's never going to mess up the family unit, and since we're stuck with that the show is already too limited for me to care. If we give the show the benefit of the doubt, and say it manages to develop an interesting superhero story, and perhaps even embrace some darkness, it will still be stuck in family-friendly land, and it will still only cover familiar ground. More likely we'll end up with something closer to Lois and Clark than Heroes, with cartoon villains and sanitized violence. From my couch this is a show about superheroes made by people who seem clueless about the subject, not to mention completely uninterested in exploring that aspect, beyond the simple, obvious conflicts.
No Ordinary Family is also troubled by the kind of lazy writing that plagues many primetime shows these days. The pilot episode, for example, is wrapped in the "interview" format, where the two leads talk directly to the camera about their experiences. At the end of the episode we learn that the couple is in therapy to "work out their issues" and the whole story has been told to the therapist. This person is not mentioned in the second episode, so maybe someone said, "wait a second, weren't they supposed to keep their powers a secret?" This is such a clumsy and uninspired storytelling device. But it's the little things that annoy me the most, like the scenes where two characters are walking through busy hallways talking loudly and openly about their top secret secrets! You do realize that even the delivery guy you just passed could pick up on this conversation, right?
The second episode centers around the ongoing struggle of "let's use our powers!" "let's not!" "Let's!" "No!" "Yes!" I think the two leads manage to change their position on this issue EIGHT times during the episode. I'm already bored with this. The show is called NO Ordinary Family, for crying out loud! I think it's safe to assume they're not going to pretend to be a regular family again.
There's real drama to be found in the setup, but you have to be fearless. Like Heroes was the first season. It was written as if every episode would be the last. The drama this kind of writing produced was unparalleled. No Ordinary Family is forced to glean its drama from thin air, and pump up the conflicts to laughable levels. "I could have lost you!" Jim yells, when Stephanie gets into an accident using her powers. The funny bit? She stumbled over a children's bicycle. That's all. Yup, when this is the level of drama, 42 minutes can seem like an eternity.
This is a gigantic step back for Michael Chiklis. This show belongs in the same box as The Commish, so far removed from his stunning performance in The Shield that it's not even funny. It makes his performance in Fantastic Four seem like award material. Julie Benz has problems of her own. Her character must be utterly offensive to women. Here is a successful, beautiful woman, and what does she do when she discovers her superpowers? Why, she uses the extra time she gains to make lunch for the kids, and then she vacuums really fast. As for the kids... Well, I got nothing. The first two episodes never get past the teen-angst, and since the writers have stuck the adults in the show with the "action powers" I can assume they'll never join the action at the same level as their parents.
Maybe they should have called the show No Ordinary Parents, and gotten some drama out of the tension between the kids and the adults, if the adults were living out the kids' fantasies. Just an idea.
Turns out that with great powers comes... more time for bake-sale.
Unsurprisingly No Ordinary Family has been deleted from my "Need To Watch" list.
This is the very definition of modern TV. Dumbed down and simplified until it's completely without taste, packaged in neat little boxes, with all the danger sucked out. So soft around the edges that you can look at it through squinting eyes, and it still looks the same.
These people may have the power to run at the speed of sound, or leap tall buildings in a single bound, but they seem unable to deflect mediocrity. Well, a good superhero needs his kryptonite, I guess.