Everything that I said I’d do,

Like make the world brand new,

And take the time for you:

I just got lost and slept right through the dawn,

And the world spins madly on.

–The Weepies, “World Spins Madly On”

Oh, so now you’re all about being a family? You were never there. You were never there and now we all have to do this for you.

–Henry (Dustin Milligan), “Pilot”

A warning: if you’re on the dark side of 25, seeing one-time New Kid on the Block Donnie Wahlberg hanging tough as Runaway‘s soulful, greying dad might make you feel old. Then again, if you’re much past your quarter-life crisis, it might be best for Wahlberg if you didn’t tune in at all. The CW network cancels series whose viewers skew too far from their adolescent-to-college target demographic. Just ask Everwood.

Now nestled in that series’ post-Seventh Heaven timeslot, Runaway fails to erase viewers’ memories of its predecessor because it’s too busy stealing from it. Like Everwood, Runaway presents a family forced to relocate in the wake of tragedy. This is a parent’s choice, of course, and Henry (Dustin Milligan) isn’t any happier about losing his old life than Ephram Brown was back in 2002. Henry’s bedroom tantrum casts a wide net of hurt. Mom Lily (Leslie Hope) learns just how much her son noticed about her shaky marriage, sister Hannah (Sarah Ramos) hears herself described as a total loser (“Why wouldn’t she want to start over?”), and little Tommy (Nathan Gamble) starts to wonder if Daddy is guilty after all.

Paul (Wahlberg) swears he isn’t. Framed for the murder of a pretty young legal associate (Sandrine Holt), he has jumped bail and disappeared with his family. It’s not permanent, he and Lily tell the kids; he just needs time to clear his name. The pilot skips the drama of this decision by picking up three weeks into their escape when, after a long stretch of motels, fast food, and near misses (Henry can’t resist calling his girlfriend from pay phones), they arrive at their new, furnished rental in Bridgewater, Iowa, population just over 23,000. Everyone has an alias, and Paul pays the realtor in cash.

Runaway splits the difference between basic family drama and the serial thriller. This is crucial, according to CW boss Dawn Ostroff, who told USA Today she didn’t think a plain family show “could launch and sustain the way it could a few years ago.” Runaway has “something that makes people feel like there’s an urgency to watching, a ticking clock. They need something to be driving them” (“‘Runaway’ melds ’24,’ ‘7th Heaven,'” 18 August 2006). In other words, the hybrid network wanted a hybrid show.

To stoke that needed urgency, the pilot apes Prison Break by also keeping tabs on Angela Huntley (Karen LeBlanc), the U.S. marshal on the family’s trail. Angela wants this matter resolved now. Reassured by a colleague that it’s only been 24 days, she changes the emphasis: “It’s already been 24 days.” Of course, Paul needs all the free days he can manage because he’s trying to find the real killer. As he is convinced that a secret email account holds clues to the murder, we’re treated to much dramatic “typing” on his PDA (free WiFi: a bail jumper’s best friend) as he methodically works through a list of possible passwords.

All this cat-and-mouse, who-did-what-to-whom action is serviceable, but creator Chad Hodge does better with the family story. The kids are started on familiar arcs (girl tries being popular, boy comes to understand his father, etc.), and the dialogue is sharp: even in their desperate circumstances, Henry and Hannah remain believably rude to one another. When he balks at sharing a room with eight-year-old Tommy, she says it’s because he won’t be able to play with himself. “Oh, like you don’t,” he shoots back. (Mom is unimpressed, having heard it all before: “Do we all have to listen to this?”)

Henry was the cool one back in Maryland, while Hannah floated on the margins in her baggy clothes and glasses. Hiding out is working in her favor. The glasses are gone, and she’s opted to “disguise” herself in formfitting clothes. Henry fares less well. As if missing his girlfriend weren’t enough, Lily signs him up for a second year as a sophomore, which means he’s in Hannah’s class. When he worries that people will think he’s “special ed,” Lily only shrugs. “Just pretend you’re twins.”

Dense with such exchanges, the Runaway pilot creates a lived-in world, even as the family’s surroundings are brand new, inspiring new possibilities. As Lily tells Paul. “I want us to be better.” Happily, Runaway is already pretty good right now.

RATING 7 / 10