[28 September 2010]
Pop culture is saturated with superheroes, and yet there always seems to be room for the next slight variation in the genre. The latest small screen entry is No Ordinary Family in which a family of four develops superpowers.
The Powells are not a happy family, but they are definitely ordinary when the series premiere begins, on 28 September. Patriarch Jim (Michael Chiklis) is a dissatisfied police sketch artist who pines for the days when his family spent more time together. Stephanie (Julie Benz) is rarely around, tending to a white-hot career as a researcher at a poorly defined biotech company. The kids, Daphne (Kay Panabaker) and JJ (Jimmy Bennett), are typical teenagers, surly and preoccupied.
In an effort to force some family bonding, Jim convinces Stephanie to let the rest of them tag along on her business trip to Brazil. Their small plane heads into the Amazon jungle during a nasty thunderstorm, then crashes into a river that is filled with phosphorescent lights. The pilot dies, but the family emerges mostly unscathed and definitely no longer ordinary.
Don’t waste too much time over-analyzing this origin story. There are countless nonsensical ways to create a superhero and none of them stands up to scrutiny. A mystical glowing river is no worse than, say, radioactive spiders, gamma rays or intergalactic visitors. Ridiculous origin stories have never doomed a comic book and it won’t hurt this series either. For it invests early on in the pure joy and wonder that the family members feel as they discover their powers. They feel none of the angst-filled self-introspection endured by Spiderman, Batman, and the X-Men. Instead, No Ordinary Family strikes a lighter tone, the Powells’ experience more like the Parrs of The Incredibles or the Fantastic Four.
Actually, No Ordinary Family begins as a mirror image of the premise of The Incredibles. Rather than hiding their powers like the Parrs, the Powells seek self-expression, ways to make their newfound exceptionalism visible and helpful, toward a greater good. In this, the show resembles Heroes, which crashed and burned after four seasons, never quite living up to the promise of its first few episodes. But, based on the first episode, there is some hope that No Ordinary Family will not repeat Heroes’ mistakes.
Heroes collapsed under its own weight, as its structure became too byzantine. It built a large collection of compelling characters, but overwhelmed them with elaborate and ultimately unsatisfying storylines. No Ordinary Family has the advantage of clearly delineating the characters we will care about. The first episode hints at individual concerns as yet undelineated, but so far, is steering clear of dark conspiracy theories.
The Fantastic Four was an early family superhero team who bickered while fighting crime. The Powells show similar inclinations here. Hardly a coherent unit, they are instead a regular-seeming family, distracted by tensions, competitions, and everyday resentments. The first episode showcases Jim discovery of what he can do. A bit baffled by how his life has gotten to this point, he’s grateful for the opportunity that his sensational abilities offer. As The Thing in the Fantastic Four movies, Chiklis was limited—by the much-discussed costume and his role, essentially a sidekick. Jim is both more intelligent and smoother around the edges, but he’s much the same character: a lovable oaf who becomes incredibly strong.
With the help of an amusing and willing accomplice, George St. Cloud (Romany Malco), Jim goes about haphazardly determining what he can actually do. At one point George eggs him on to jump off the roof and see if he can fly. Jim takes the leap and falls many stories to the ground. Unhurt and standing in a giant crater, Jim hears George yell down, “Guess you can’t fly.” By contrast, when Stephanie realizes that she has developed super speed, she undertakes a series of scientific tests to determine just how fast she is.
While the parents are given physical abilities—strength and speed—the kids’ powers are more mental. Daphne can hear thoughts, a useful skill in high school hallways, and JJ, who begins the show with a learning disability, becomes a genius. As each individual seeks his or her limits, the group is coming together, sharing their difference and their secret. No Ordinary Family is set up to develop these relationships. It is off to a promising start, tweaking a lot of superhero conventions without seeming like a parody.