I used to play superhero games in the backyard with capes and sticks. Those games used to be modeled after the idea that having superpowers would, in fact, be super. I’ve watched and read enough superhero yarns over the years to know how wrong I used to be.
As you may have heard, with great power comes great responsibility, but calling them “super-responsibilies” isn’t as heroic. I can just imagine running round outside with my ill-fitting mask yelling, “Look at me! I can fly! It’s such a DRAG!”
In movies, on TV and in many comic books, superpowers are just something else to eat into your leisure time and mess up your relationships to friends and loved ones. Power don’t mean freedom. They mean secrets and inconvenience and, much like having a job or a marriage or children, they mean responsibility. With superpowers, it’s all about the up-keep.
Buy why shouldn’t superpowers occasionally make life better? And not just in a “Here I Come to Save The Day!” way? People with superpowers are always so invested in improving life on a macro level that they rarely do anything other than make things worse on a micro level.
Maybe that’s why I like ABC’s new family dramedy “No Ordinary Family.”
Full review after the break…
Meet the Powells. They’re a pretty normal suburban family in that the parents spend too much time working, the kids spend too much time texting or playing video games and nobody is nearly invested enough in Family Time. They’re drifting apart, but not in a dramatic way, just in the way that plenty of families probably feel estranged.
At patriarch Jim’s (Michael Chiklis) urging, they all head off to Brazil on a business trip for wife Stephanie (Julie Benz). It’s supposed to bring them together, but kids Daphne (Kay Panabaker) and JJ (Jimmy Bennett) are just as teenager-y as ever. Then their plane crashes into the Amazon River (or a poorly disguised water tank on the Disney lot).
Next thing you know, the Powells all start noticing that they’ve changed. Jim, formerly a slightly emasculated wallflower working as a police sketch artist, suddenly has super strength (and some peripheral powers that don’t necessarily all go together in context). Stephanie, frustrated by her inability to find enough time in the day to be a scientist, wife and mother, suddenly discovers that she has super speed. Daphne, plagued by the insecurities that many high school girls (and guys) feel, is suddenly telepathic. The only Powell seemingly left out is JJ, who’s a bit of a lunkhead anyway.
In the early going, NBC’s “Heroes” was a huge amount of fun, because the origin stories for all of the ordinary-turned-extraordinary characters reminded me of those backyard games where it seemed appropriate to be excited by the ability to do something nobody else could do. Then they had to save the cheerleader to save the world, which managed to be simultaneously micro and macro in an amusing way. Then, that all stopped. Finally, the show just became one apocalypse after another, one mopey character after another bitching and moaning about how their superpowers will killing them or, at the very least, preventing them from staying home on Monday nights and watching NBC. What started off as escapist fun became a show viewers actively yearned to escape.
For the pilot, “No Ordinary Family” is on-the-nose about its super-powered MO, but I still enjoyed its simplicity. As a family, the Powells aren’t badly broken and their new gifts are conspicuously designed to fill in what’s lacking.
There’s no looming Big Bad in the pilot for “No Ordinary Family,” no pending apocalypse. The pilot is brightly shot, colorful and intentionally flat, eschewing the shadowy recesses and ominous angles that have become the standard grammar of the genre. This may be no ordinary family, but it’s still an ordinary world they’re inhabiting.
So they find themselves experimenting with their powers and attempting to understand them as best they can. The pilot’s best scenes are with Jim and Stephanie testing their limitations with the help of their handy sidekicks. Romany Malco and Autumn Reeser are early standouts as a DA with a lot of free time and a research assistant with a lot of free time, respectively.
Chiklis and Benz are both appealing performers, particularly in how they convey their characters’ reactions to what they can now do.
After years of remarkably work as Vic Mackey, a character who never lacked for shading, Chiklis is amazingly loose and joyful here. It’s unusual to see “glee” conveyed by an actor of Chiklis’ build and stature and the contrast is a welcome one.
For Benz, typecast so long as a very specific type of breathless and dumb blonde, there’s noticeable pleasure in playing intelligent. If Chiklis plays “joy” as his primary reaction to his powers, Benz is going with “relief” or “gratitude.”
The kids are a bit more awkward, though some of that may be intentional. Panabaker’s a really solid actress, especially if you confuse her with sister Danielle in your head (I was about to praise Kay’s performance in “Mr. Brooks,” but that was Danielle, who also appears in the premiere of “Law & Order: Los Angeles” on Wednesday). Here, she’s stuck with the pilot’s three or four worst lines, which leaves me hoping that pilot writer Jon Feldman and executive producer Greg Berlanti brought in writers with a better sense of how to write for high school girls. I didn’t care much for Bennett, but he also didn’t have very good writing in his corner for the pilot.
“No Ordinary Family” wears its heart on its sleeve and some of the reasons I most enjoyed it will be some of the reasons many viewers tune it out quickly. It’s very familiar — superhero stories, origin stories in particular, aren’t the freshest concept — and plays within its familiar formula with a certain broadness. But the broadness is part of the show’s core. It really is intended as a wide-reach family show and while some of the punchlines are clever and others don’t shy from a lower denominator.
But — and you have to realize this comment is coming from a guy often accused of being cynical and ironic — I found the show’s lack of cynicism and lack of irony to be pleasant. It looks a bit like “The Incredibles” or “Heroes” or whatever, but it isn’t in any sort of post-modern conversation with those earlier works. It ignores that if you’re a comic book fan, you’ve probably seen a dozen variations on this formula. It says, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if…” and runs spiritedly with it. And with the help of two terrific leads in Chiklis and Benz, that was enough for me.
“No Ordinary Family” premieres at 8 p.m. on Tuesday, Sept. 28 on ABC.