Review: No Ordinary Family 1×1

Light, family fun that doesn't tax the brain

No Ordinary Family

In the US: Tuesdays, 8/7c, ABC
In the UK: Yet to be acquired

Brace yourself: this is the first of not one but two superhero shows on network US TV coming this Fall, with NBC’s The Cape due some time soon (presumably as soon as NBC cancels another show, since there’s no actual airdate yet).

But of the two, this is the most family-friendly. Family, incidentally, is the operative word here. Since ABC scored big last year with Modern Family, it must have seemed natural enough to go for family with the drama as well. Here we have an “ordinary family” – which apparently means “family doing regular stuff but with deep seated emotional issues and resentments, but nothing too dramatic” – whose plane crash-lands in the Amazon. Exposed to some weird green stuff in the river, when they return to the US, they soon discover they have super-powers, which in traditional Heroes style are exactly what they need emotionally: super-strength for the father who wants to fight crime, super-speed for the mother who has too little time, super-brains for the learning disabled son and the ability to read minds for the girl who can’t fit in.

It’s not as adult as Heroes, it’s not as kid-oriented as Kyle XY, it’s not as good as The Incredibles and it’s not as “ordinary” as Misfits – but it’s got Julie Benz (Buffy, Angel, Dexter) and Michael Chiklis (The Shield, Fantastic Four), it does have some really cool special effects and the stories are something the whole family can enjoy. Basically, it’s Merlin for Americans – but better, obviously

The Powells are about to go from ordinary to extraordinary. After 16 years of marriage, Jim (Michael Chiklis, The Shield Fantastic Four) feels disconnected from his workaholic wife, Stephanie (Julie Benz, Dexter), and two teenage children, Daphne (Kay Panabaker, Summerland) and JJ (Jimmy Bennett, Star Trek). To encourage family bonding time, Jim decides the family will join Stephanie on her business trip to South America. When their plane crashes into the Amazon River, they barely enjoy a moment to celebrate their survival before returning to the grind of everyday life. But they will soon realize that their lives have been forever changed. Each member of the family starts to show signs of new, unique and distinct super powers. Will their newfound abilities finally bring them together or push them further apart?

Jim feels powerless as he realizes his life is not turning out the way he planned. His children are growing more independent, and his wife spends more time at the office than home as she rockets up the corporate ladder. His job as a police sketch artist only furthers his insecurities as he watches his peers fight crime and catch criminals. However, when Jim discovers that the plane crash left him with the power of super strength, he immediately feels a new sense of purpose and empowerment. With the aid of his best friend and confidant, George (Romany Malco, The 40 Year Old Virgin Weeds), he sets his sights on becoming a hero.

Stephanie struggles to balance her family life with working 80 hours a week as an award-winning scientist. Her boss and mentor, Dr. Dayton King (Stephen Collins, 7th Heaven), continues to guide and challenge Stephanie’s research in the lab. While fearful of never finding balance in her life, something remarkable happens. After the crash, she develops the power of speed, which allows her to move effortlessly through her daily responsibilities. Always the scientist, Stephanie immediately questions the phenomenon and demands answers. She entrusts her lab tech, Katie (Autumn Reeser, The OC), with her secret, and the two begin to research the mystery behind the powers.

For 16-year-old Daphne and 14-year-old JJ, adolescence is hard enough. Daphne dreads distraction from her own fabulousness, but that’s exactly what happens when she turns telepathic. Daphne hears other people’s hopes, dreams, fears and joys, whether she cares to or not. Younger brother JJ struggles constantly to satisfy his parents and teachers as he grapples with a learning disability and bad grades. Already feeling inferior to his popular sister and brilliant mom, JJ hits a new low when everyone acquires powers except him – until suddenly JJ’s mental abilities strengthen to a super genius level.

For the Powells, embarking on a mission to understand their new abilities becomes the key to rebuilding their family life, as they learn what defines and unifies them. Despite the fact they can collectively lift a car, run at lightning speed, read your mind and calculate the dimensions of the Eiffel Tower — all before you say “superhero” – they are first and foremost an average family with everyday problems.

Is it any good?
It’s enjoyable, family friendly fun*. Not for a moment do you think this is actually an adult show, but that’s not necessarily a bad thing. This is escapist entertainment and if that’s what you’re looking for, this will serve you well.

This first episode is a little clunky, making the characters jump through some odd hoops to produce dramatic moments. So, for example, we have Chiklis jumping off a building to see if he can fly – a nod to Heroes? – and having baseballs fired at him at full speed, without even bothering to try with a catcher’s mitt first. And as soon as he realises he has special powers, his best friend sets him up a “lair” full of equipment that would have cost hundreds of thousands of dollars and involved weeks of configuration and programming to produce.

Emotionally, things are a little up in the air, too (ho ho). Chiklis is resentful of Benz’s success, but not so successful that he’s actually going to talk to her about it yet is considering going to a divorce lawyer. The son is in his teens yet Chiklis and Benz still haven’t come to terms with the fact he has learning difficulties. The daughter is unwilling to talk to Benz about her love life and boyfriend – yet is perfectly happy and unembarrassed to talk to her father about them. These are dramatic, broadbrush conceits needed for the pilot episode that don’t make much sense but give our heroes some “ordinary problems”, which in Modern Family style, they discuss to-camera.

It’s also debatable how “ordinary” this family is – we’re not talking Misfits in terms of regular people becoming superheroes, here**. They live in a palatial house. Benz is a brilliant scientist and businesswoman who earns scary money and gets to fly in private jets. That doesn’t sound that ordinary to me – a bit of an ABC disconnect from its audience there?

But once we get round to the actual crimefighting and super-powered plots, things go a whole lot better. Chiklis’ jumping around and superstrength are fun, but Benz’s super speed is even better handled. More interestingly, they’re not the only superheroes in town, and there is a fantastic fight scene in which Chiklis has to fight a guy who can jump around like Nightcrawler in X-Men 2. Where these other superheroes come from, I can’t say without spoiling it for you, but there will be a supervillain for our ordinary family to fight.

If the show can keep up the superpowered fun and keep the emotional as a light but non-pervasive backdrop, this will be something fun you’ll be able to watch every week. It’s probably never going to hit Heroes – season 1 levels of excellence, but with Julie Benz in it, I’ll certainly be watching. You should give it a try, too.

* Bar one use of the word ‘whore’ and various discussions about virginity and sex, if that’s the kind of thing you object to
** Although daughter’s use of mind-reading is almost identical to a scene in the first episode of Misfits


  • Rob Buckley

    I’m Rob Buckley, a journalist who writes for UK media magazines that most people have never heard of although you might have heard me on the podcast Lockdown Land or Radio 5 Live’s Saturday Edition or Afternoon Edition. I’ve edited Dreamwatch, Sprocket and Cambridge Film Festival Daily; been technical editor for TV producers magazine Televisual; reviewed films for the short-lived newspaper Cambridge Insider; written features for the even shorter-lived newspaper Soho Independent; and was regularly sarcastic about television on the blink-and-you-missed-it “web site for urban hedonists” The Tribe. Since going freelance, I've contributed to the likes of Broadcast, Total Content + Media, Action TV, Off The Telly, Action Network, TV Scoop and The Custard TV.

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