Television is an inherently artificial medium. Well, most media are, but television has it worst. The combined pressures of episode length and serialization give it a specificity of form that, say, novels and films lack, since they're done when they're done and can add or subtract scenes much more easily than a television show can. At a certain point, a TV show has to acknowledge its artificiality. It can do this in a fairly conventional fashion, by finding a groove and settling into it, or it can play with the form. Shows like The Simpsons and Community have embraced a certain level of artificiality in different fashions, but that's a big part of why I like them. You never know what movie style Community is going to parody, what kind of faux-moralizing The Simpsons will toss at you (although with a strong emotional core anyway). The faux-documentary styling of The Office and Parks & Recreation is itself a form of meta-television, but it actually works to become more immersive, not less. It works for dramas, as well. The television format is used within The Sopranos in an almost confrontational manner. The show's producers want a kind of antagonistic relationship with its watchers. The Wire seems naturalistic, but its quick cuts that happen to show just enough to understand what's going on are just as artificial as anything else.
There are also television conventions like the bottle episode, itself a fourth-wall-breaker when it happened on Community this season. These are often tremendously artificial, but just as often, they're great fun. An episode which is made in order to save money in the budget seems like it's going to be weaker, but it's often as good or better than an average episode. It's part of the paradox of television: Artificiality increases engrossment.
This has been a major problem with No Ordinary Family. It's had the most cliché storylines imaginable, but it's dealt with them like it's saying something really interesting, new, and important. It hasn't. It can't. It's too artificial. I don't think these characters can tell me anything interesting about life because they're so painfully unreal. Until they're acknowledged as unreal, I can't take anything they say too seriously. Acknowledge that they're unreal and artificial, and I'll start seeing what's human about them, instead of inhuman (or post-human, as it were). (I mentioned Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics during my review of the last No Ordinary Family to discuss closure, but he also discusses very similar concepts regarding subject and object in art, which also apply here. Read it if you haven't!)
Which brings us to tonight's episode. There's a single moment when No Ordinary Family actually does turn that corner into self-awareness. Jim and George are hiding in the police station during a hostage situation. Jim is trying to figure out how to use his powers without outing himself and catches a glimpse of an air vent. “Have you seen Die Hard?” he asks George. “I am insulted that you would even ask me that!” responds George. A bit more conversation, Jim reveals his plan to crawl through the vents to get at the bad guys. George says that John McClane would never have succeeded without his black guy on the inside. “Make me be your black guy!”
And that's it. That's the moment when No Ordinary Family realized that yes, Romany Malco is the wacky black sidekick. Yes, the show is a walking set of clichés. It has been done before, but maybe, it can do things its own way, with characters who might be interesting enough that putting its own spin on things could be interesting.
There's another bit of meta going on. At the same time as all this is going on, a woman from Internal Affairs swings by to see if everything in the department is on the up-and-up, since Jim's violent vigilante arrests have garnered attention. Internal Affairs is after Michael Chiklis for not playing by the rules, y'all! He eventually saves her and confesses his superpowers, and she says she won't tell because, quote, “you're a hero!” Three steps forward but still one step back.
It's not a fluke. The Die Hard references continue, yes, but JJ and Daphne get stuck in The Breakfast Club. Really. Both of them get detention, alongside Bailey (the annoying popular girl), Natalie (JJ's 21-year-old girlfriend) and Chris (the bad boy from last week's episode). They play Truth or Dare. Natalie breaks up with JJ, who makes a grand romantic gesture that still doesn't work. Bailey, who's doing her best damn Cordelia Chase impression (and a pretty good one at that) decides that JJ's smart, cute, and potentially very rich, so she macks on him. Daphne and Chris kiss. It's not the greatest thing in the universe, but it's far from the promised terribleness the “No Ordinary Detention” title implied.
I'm not sure if the Stephanie plot is specifically based on a movie, but it's also a bottle episode, just like the other two story threads. Everyone at work is at a conference, leaving Steph alone in the lab. Katie drags Joshua Vader in for a medical checkup, since he's going through superpower withdrawal. But the evil blonde HR shapeshifting lady sees him and triggers a radiation alert, trapping them in the lab. She shapeshifts into Katie, makes some threats, discovers Steph's superpower, and gets defenstrated by Joshua, who decides saving Katie is worth getting back on the stuff for. She thinks it's romantic and, sigh, doesn't tell Stephanie that Joshua has superpowers too.
No Ordinary Family's ratings plummeted last week and with good reason. That first episode back from the break was brutal. The last two episodes have shown a growing comfort with the format and possibly a way back from the abyss in terms of quality. Whether that will lead to better ratings, I can't say, although I will say that my respect for the show and its ratings have tended to be pretty similar. Whether it's cancelled or not, at least No Ordinary Family is getting to be a little more fun.
- Meanwhile, in No Ordinary Family's continuing reliance on White People Problems, the episode opens with an escaped convict running through a university campus, stealing mopeds.
- The math teacher notices JJ and Natalie texting and takes their phones, saying that he expects to “LMAO.” He's channeling his inner Ben Stein (the funny one, not the asshole who tries to steal your credit report money), and he just gets better.
- JJ shows his first comic timing, referencing Daphne's telepathy: “Kind of depends on how she hears it.”
- When JJ was confronting Natalie in the hallway, there was a banner hung over his shoulder that said “Yea team!” in big letters. Yea team indeed.
- Anyone know what that song playing at the end was? Very un-No Ordinary Family.