Review: The Family 1×1-1×2 (US: ABC)

Interesting questions, soporific answers


In the US: Sundays, 9/8c, ABC
In the UK: Not yet acquired

Virtually everyone who goes to prison in US TV dramas deserves it. In fact, frequently, they don’t get enough prison and it’s clear that by the end of the episode they deserve more of it; there also plenty of people who deserve to be in prison but who aren’t because of ‘technicalities’ such as no evidence, yet the cops know they should be.

Why don’t we just let the prosecutors and the cops do what’s right and stick anyone they think is guilty of a crime in jail forever and ever, hey? That would sort out the crime problem, wouldn’t it?

Well, trouble is, not everyone found guilty of a crime – or even suspected of a crime – is actually guilty, as John Oliver recently pointed out:

A few TV shows have faced up to this reality, including Life, Rectify and most recently ABC’s Secrets and Lies. But largely, the accused-but-innocent man, while guilty of something like adultery, isn’t guilty of anything too bad.

So you’ve got to at least credit The Family with addressing moral ambiguity in a deeper way than before. Here we have former Brat packer Andrew McCarthy coming out of partial acting retirement to play a man accused of kidnapping, murdering and probably raping the young son of his neighbours, aspiring politician Joan Allen (The Bourne Supremacy, Manhunter) and her husband Rupert Graves (Sherlock). When they find videos on his computer of children being abused, it seems like an open and shut case for rookie cop Margot Bingham (Boardwalk Empire, Matador), and McCarthy is sent away to prison.

Ten years later, Graves and Allen have separated and the children, who include The Newsroom‘s Alison Pill, are all grown up. Then the son they thought had died turns up on a road, having been kidnapped and imprisoned Room-style for close to a decade. McCarthy may be a paedophile but he is innocent of the murder, so is released back into the community.

Can the real kidnapper be found? What will happen to the family now the son has returned? How will the community treat McCarthy once he’s among them again? Can McCarthy be a nice man who’s kind to kids and should be allowed to be around them, even if he does have some rather nasty videos? 

These are just some of the interesting questions the show poses, even if it answers none of them well. However, another question is: “With such an interesting subject matter and strong cast, how can it be so astonishingly dull?”

ABC’s new thriller The Family follows the return of a politician’s young son who was presumed dead after disappearing over a decade earlier. As the mysterious young man is welcomed back into his family, suspicions emerge – is he really who he says he is?

The Family stars Joan Allen as Claire, Alison Pill as Willa, Margot Bingham as Sergeant Nina Meyer, Zach Gilford as Danny, Liam James as Adam, Floriana Lima as Bridey, Madeleine Arthur as Young Willa, Rarmian Newton as Young Danny, Rupert Graves as John and Andrew McCarthy as Hank.

New series The Family was written by Jenna Bans. Executive producers are Jenna Bans and Mandeville Television’s Todd Lieberman, David Hoberman and Laurie Zaks. The Family is produced by ABC Studios.

Is it any good?
It is so dull, I literally had to go out and make myself a cup of coffee by the midpoint of the second episode. That’s after having had to watch the two episodes with two hours’ separation, because the first one was hard enough going.

The show is basically a cross between Rectify and Secrets and Lies, but with all the flaws of those shows and none of the strengths. We’ve got a man falsely accused of a crime finally freed and having to adjust to society, while society adjusts to him in possibly the slowest narrative possible from Rectify; then we have the female detective investigating a case of child murder in a particularly stupid way from Secrets and Lies. Added to that we have creator Jenna Bans Shondaland-legacy with a Scandal-esque topping of ridiculous politics. It’s not a good combo.

The show has little interest in addressing the issues it raises, preferring instead to make it all a big mystery: is the returning son really who he says? Why did the doctor who tested his DNA commit suicide two days later? Why does the son only remember things that are visible in photos, yet not know who his best friend at school was or how you put the ships into one of his many bottles? Is he, in fact, someone else, brainwashed by his abductor into believing he is the son, in an effort to exhonerate the actually guilty McCarthy?

But it’s a poor mystery that needs ridiculous engineering to make work. This results in things like the cops not finding it suspicious until 10 years later that a vital piece of evidence didn’t have the child’s fingerprints on it, despite it having been held by him all day. Could it have been wiped clean? I wonder… And even if Andrew McCarthy didn’t abduct the child, he still had videos on his computer, which would potentially get him a few years in prison anyway.

To its credit, The Family does at least play with some interesting issues, even if it’s not quite sure what to say about them. But it’s more interested in its central mystery and with ‘the family’ of the title than anything else. Unfortunately, despite the cast, all those characters are just about as tedious as it’s possible to be, although Alison Pill’s scheming spin doctor is more enjoyable than you’d expect.

Where it isn’t tedious, The Family is as pulpy as hell. For example, the reporter who writes the ‘lesbian lifestyle blog’ for the local paper sleeps with the wayward elder son (Friday Night Lights Zach Gilford) to get the lowdown on the family – I’m not sure she really gets the ‘lesbian lifestyle’, you know? Bingham and Graves had a quasi-secret affair at some point, too, that 13-year-old Pill covered up. And, of course, McCarthy moves back in next door to Allen and Graves when he’s released from prison. Can’t see anything going wrong there.

I doubt this is going to go the distance so I’d recommend – if you have the stamina – watching Rectify instead to see a much smarter interpretation of the same idea. But I’m honestly not interested enough to care who did what to whom and why in The Family to even bother with the next episode.


  • 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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