Capitalizing on the comics to film craze, this fall television producers are bringing superheroes back to primetime. While NBC’s The Cape, offers a return to costumed crime fighters on television, the more compelling commentary on contemporary cultural anxiety comes from ABC’s No Ordinary Family.
On the surface, nothing about No Ordinary Family is original (thus it is incredibly ordinary). A family of superheroes has been the bedrock of American comic culture since the debut of Stan Lee and Jack Kirby’s The Fantastic Four in 1961. In comics, children and family, in fact and metaphor, shape major characters and storylines in Batman, the X-Men, and Spider-Man. Moreover, in films such as Pixar’s The Incredibles in 2004 and Superman Returns (2006) the disposition and functionality of family is a major part of the story.
With this as a backdrop, in No Ordinary Family, a family develops super powers while on a trip to reconnect. From the beginning, Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz who play Jim and Stephanie Powell, familiar faces from darker series (The Shield and Angel), the show plays on the fear and desire associated with contemporary family life. The Powells are a typical suburban nuclear family. Two unhappy and stressed parents with kids—JJ and Daphne, played with minimal expression by Jimmy Bennett and Kay Panabaker, facing problems of their own. The Powells are ordinary and because of that, the addition of superpowers allows producers to externalize debates about familial functionality through them. The characters are archetypes: a father disconnected and emasculated, an overworked and guilt ridden working mom, a frustrated slacker son, and a daughter struggling with personal and societal expectations. The metaphor offered by superpowers is the compelling element.
The father’s journey from powerless man unable to affect either home or job to lone hero righting societal wrongs is at the narrative core of the first episode. The pilot begins with Jim Powell remembering when his family was close, and predictably charts his rediscovery of self once he manifest his strength. After he is empowered, traits that had marked his frustration become useful. A failed artist (his words) working for the police, his job gives him the chance to make a difference. Indeed, we see him struggling early in the pilot to provide assistance to a woman who lost her husband in a robbery to in an “Obama Masked” criminal.
Perhaps the choice of Obama for the mask was happenstance, but the choice connects victimization to the President, a sentiment shared by some in Middle America. Added to this, the woman is white and older, representative of the least supportive portion of the electorate for the President. Taken together, the exchange provides a subliminal reminder to the viewer that President Obama (and his policies) fail to address their problems. In contrast, Jim Powell sets out to catch the criminal. While race plays in the background, Jim Powell, despite lamenting the empty relationship with his wife, confides in his best friend, George St. Cloud (played by Romany Malco) an African-American district attorney. Together, they discover the full extent of his power and embark on a vigilante campaign. In contrast, the superpowers bestowed the other family members seem to facilitate traditional family roles.
Julie Benz’s Stephanie Powell uses her powers not to fight crime, but to address the pressure placed on professional women in middle-class families. Stephanie Powell is granted super-speed—making it possible for her do everything a wife and mother is expected to do, but logically does have the time or energy to accomplish while working full time. The wish fulfillment offered to female viewers in Stephanie Powell is both heartening and patronizing. The writers are refashioning long-standing debates about the effect of work on family through Stephanie’s experience. Like her husband Stephanie Powell’s powers allows her to fulfill a traditional familial role. She struggles to balance job and family and these fears feed concerns she is a bad wife and mother.
Getting super-speed allows her to once again be a traditional maternal figure, while also continuing to be a professional woman. Since she was already successful, the net gain from being empowered is to bring domestic concerns to the forefront without sacrificing professional identity. She is literally able to hold down her demanding job as a research scientist and run home and help her son with his math homework. She can also spend more time with her husband, finish her work early enough to cook dinner and arrange a “date night”. Her power allows her to be maternal, solving the tension created by social pressure for middle-class women to “do it all”. Like her husband, she discovers her power and keeps it a secret from him, exploring her ability with the assistance of her lab assistant Katie Andrews (played by Autumn Reese). In contrast to her husband, her powers emphasize her maternal role stabilizing the family in contrast to his efforts to stabilize society.
Even before the family, there was Mom…
The Powell children powers also provide the chance to externalize adolescent concerns, and like their parents, their powers play to gendered expectations. JJ, who appears to be an underachieving slacker, we discover he actually has a learning disability. Like his parents, JJ discovers his power solve his problem as he gains enhance intelligence. Strangely, of all the characters on the show, JJ discovery and use of his power is the least affecting. In JJ, the writers and producers of No Ordinary Family are addressing concerns related to achievement for adolescent white males. The common complaint of, “if only he would apply himself” has shifted in recent years as concerns about academic success among males has grown from general concerns about low-income and minority children lagging behind, to white middle-class children failing to achieve at levels consistent with their global counterparts.
These fears are enhanced by the realization that incomes are stagnating; household expenses on the rise and the prospect for future opportunity seem bleak. Added to this young men are failing to achieve on par with young women and JJ’s problem with math (the only subject he shown struggling with) become emblematic of middle-class concerns about future opportunity. Yet, once he is granted power, JJ’s problems seem to disappear.
In contrast, Daphne gains the power to reads minds. Like her mother, Daphne’s power is applied in a gendered manner. The ability to read mind allows her to address concerns about her boyfriend’s feeling toward her abstinence. Like her mother, Daphne’s power is a kind of wish fulfillment that supports traditional gender stereotypes. For young women plagued by peer pressure and social expectations, Daphne knows what people really think. While mind powers are traditional considered the top tier in comics, Daphne is quick to point out her power is a burden.
Nonetheless, she is able to use it to effectively uncover her boyfriend’s cheating, thus validating her decision to remain chaste. While her powers along with her mother could have a big impact in the wider world, the application is totally domestic in application. She remains chaste and she provides a need critique of the dysfunctional relationship between her parents that spurs them to acknowledge their problems and seek counseling.
At the end of the day, every member of the family, although granted powers, are not granted the license to use them in the wider world. That privilege is reserved for the father; his adventure fighting criminals (some with powers, some without) will serve foundation of super heroic in the show. Producers have already promised to “put Jim’s powers to use” allowing him to “make a difference”. For the rest of the family, superpowers allow the problems that threaten familial accord to be settled.
The closing scene of the pilot highlights this fact. We see the family together again playing football (using their powers), a cohesive unit. The emphasis on the family as functional unit is the real superpower of the show. Turning to the superhero trope to explore idea of familial and societal functionality is not a surprise. Yet, the idea of good versus bad guys is simplistic. In real world and in comics, the societal complexities means moral certainty and all too often runs afoul of practicality.
In print, major storylines from Marvel and DC comics are focus on a new “Heroic Age” (Marvel) or “Brightest Day” (DC) allusion to a status quo where “heroes” are in charge. In reflexive manner, both storylines suggest problems don’t disappear, despite good intentions. In complex world, simple institutions, like family, are easy to venerate. In No Ordinary Family, producers are using the desire to move away from complex scenarios and rely on straightforward solutions as way to snag viewers. Whether or not it will survive, the sentiments represented will continue to shape our world.
// Channel Surfing
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