As the father and mother of a nuclear family that somehow gets super powers during a South American vacation, Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz spend a good chunk of the premiere of ABC”s “No Ordinary Family” (it debuts tomorrow at 8) figuring out the limits of their new abilities. Sure, Chiklis can lift a few tons and catch bullets, but can he fly? How fast can super-speedster Benz run, and why don”t her clothes burn up from the friction?
These are the kinds of questions that will appeal to a certain brand of fanboy or girl, and the show sprinkles in other comic book references like a figurine of Kitty Pryde from The X-Men and a building named for legendary writer/artist Walt Simonson. But in its pilot episode, “No Ordinary Family” seems to be testing its limits just as much as Chiklis and Benz are, and there are definitely weaknesses that creators Greg Berlanti and Jon Harmon Feldman will need to be careful of getting hurt by.
Chiklis and Benz both have fantasy/superhero bonafides as, respectively, The Thing in the Fantastic Four films and Darla the vampire on “Buffy” and “Angel.” And of course Chiklis” character on “The Shield” often came across as superhuman. So unsurprisingly, the show is at its strongest when they”re figuring out their abilities. Benz and (specially) Chiklis are so good at playing the thrill of suddenly having super powers, and they”ve been given a pair of entertaining sidekicks in Autumn Reeser and Romany Malco, who get to live vicariously through their friends and marvel at how cool this all is. (Malco gets the pilot”s best lines and develops a great rapport with Chiklis.) “Heroes” very quickly made getting super powers seem like an affliction, but at least for the adults in this extraordinary family, it”s a lot of fun.
The action scenes and FX shots aren”t fancy enough that anyone will mistake them for scenes from the trailer for “Green Lantern” (which Berlanti co-wrote), but they”re snazzy enough, and one fight scene in particular is better-staged than most of the comparable “Heroes” scenes. As a show about average people who become superheroes, “No Ordinary Family” is very promising.
It”s the “Family” part of the title where the series has problems, which is odd given that Berlanti has had so much success with family dramas like “Everwood” and “Brothers & Sisters.”
Chiklis and Benz are Jim and Stephanie Powell, parents to Jimmy Bennett”s JJ and Kay Panabaker”s Daphne. Stephanie”s a research scientist who doesn”t have enough time to cultivate her career, her marriage and her relationship with her kids. Jim”s a failed painter who works as a police sketch artist, feeling emasculated at both home (where Stephanie”s the breadwinner) and work (where the cops treat him like a mascot). Daphne is sealed inside the standard teen girl bubble and has trouble with other girls at school sniffing around her boyfriend, while JJ is defensive about being completely unremarkable in a family of geniuses and artists. And none of them seems particularly close to each other anymore, which inspires Jim to take them on the vacation where a plane crash into the Amazon appears to give them all their powers.
You should be able to figure all of this out from seeing the characters interact with each other – noting, for instance, that Daphne is always glued to her cell phone, even when the plane is about to crash. (In one of the clumsier laugh lines, she”s asked whom she”s texting at a time like this, and replies, “God!”) But Berlanti and Feldman have for some reason chosen to over-explain everything with a device where Jim and Stephanie are both telling an off-screen interviewer their stories, explaining not only how they discovered their powers, but their feelings about their place within the family.
It”s all very redundant (if ABC had to ditch the talk-to-the-camera gimmick from one of its new dramas, I”d rather it had been this than “Detroit 1-8-7”), as these two good actors have to repeatedly come right out and tell the audience about feelings that they”ve just portrayed within the flow of the story.
Everything in the family stories are underlined and in bold face, and the focus of the pilot is so heavily on the parents that the kids barely register as more than types. “The Incredibles” is one of the show”s obvious, half-acknowledged influences (along with “The Greatest American Hero,” the Fantastic Four themselves and a bunch of other superhero stories), and what made that film so special was how it worked as both an adventure and a compelling family story. You wanted to see Mr. Incredible and Elasti-Girl beat the bad guy, but you also wanted to see the Parrs heal their marriage and Dash find a way to be less frustrated in school.
Obviously, a high-concept show like this has to get a lot of exposition out of the way early, and it”s not a surprise that the creative team would lean on their two adult stars at the beginning. But if we get a few weeks in and the balance continues to be off – both between the hero and family parts of the show, and between the adults and kids – then that”s a problem super strength or speed may not be able to fix.
Alan Sepinwall may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org