ABC’s new drama The Family takes on our fascination with individuals who have been abducted and held captive in isolation for a long period of time and their subsequent attempts to reintegrate into society. Like the recent novel and film Room (and, for that matter, Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt), it’s inspired in part by real-life events like Cleveland’s Ariel Castro kidnappings and Austria’s Fritzl case. So, despite the inexplicably bland title, The Family goes to some pretty dark places right from the get go.
The premise centers on the Warren family, whose son Adam disappeared 10 years prior. In a flashback to the series of events that led to Adam’s disappearance, we see stay-at-home mom Claire (Joan Allen) campaigning for city counsel at a town fair in the fictional Red Pines, where the series is set. Claire and her husband John (Rupert Graves) tell their eldest two children to watch over young Adam. Things don’t go as planned, and Adam vanishes seemingly into thin air.
In the present day, Claire is now the driven mayor of Red Pines, with an eye on a governor’s seat. Her eldest son Danny (Zach Gilford), who had been primarily in charge of looking after Adam, has developed substance abuse problems, while Claire’s daughter Willa (Alison Pill) works as her mayoral assistant, a role that perfectly channels Anna Chlumsky’s character in Veep. Meanwhile, Claire and John’s marriage has become strained in the 10 years following the loss of their son and her ascent into the ranks of local government, so the whole family is completely blindsided when Adam (Liam James) turns up at the local police station.
The only problem: After Adam was never seen or heard from again, the Warrens’ neighbor Hank (Andrew McCarthy) was eventually tried and convicted of his murder, and now finds himself exonerated after nearly a decade. This creates an interesting parallel, between a young boy who was held captive for 10 years while suffering unimaginable rape and torture at the hands of his captor, and the man who also effectively lost 10 years of his life by being held responsible for the crime he didn’t commit.
But while that alone would be a gripping premise, at its core, The Family is also a network drama, so of course there’s a twist. Despite the fact that Adam has allegedly been DNA tested, Danny soon starts to pick up on things that seem a bit off about his brother, who may not be who he says he is. Likewise, by the end of the first episode, you’ll find yourself questioning both whether or not Hank really is as innocent as he now appears, or if he was even possibly framed for the “murder” by a third party. And as it turns out, Adam isn’t the only one in the Warren family harboring secrets from one another.
Rounding out the cast is Nina Meyer (Margot Bingham), the detective who earned her badge investigating Adam’s disappearance, now determined to set things right by finding the real kidnapper; and Bridey Howard (Floriana Lima), Danny’s teenage flame at the time Adam went missing, currently a reporter for the local newspaper and working the case from her own angle.
While the pilot is definitely solid, the mystery angle could go either way in future episodes, as we’ve seen in the past with shows that try to cram in too many pointless red herrings and left turns that by the end you don’t even care who did it or why. (I’m looking at you, Gracepoint.) But the cast all bring their A game, particularly Allen as the ball-busting matriarch and McCarthy, who lends genuine creepiness and dread to the role. Whether or not The Family can keep building the momentum for an entire season, much less seasons, is up in the air, but at least for now it’s worth a look for fans of mystery and drama.
The Family premieres tonight on ABC at 9 p.m. ET.