No Ordinary Family is a conservative show. It's a small-c kind of “conservative.” It's not going to tell you to vote for Republicans, make a speech supporting tax cuts for the wealthy, or anything like that. That would be tacky. Instead, it'll support basic American mythology and social norms that seem to have only ever existed on television. Most of this is unobtrusive. JJ gets his superbrain and goes out for the football team. He doesn't go out for European-dominated sports like tennis or soccer, nor does he suddenly join the golf or lacrosse teams, with their elitist connotations. Volleyball would be too girly. Baseball and basketball both take place in the spring, and the latter has those distressing urban connotations. No, it has to be football.
That's harmless enough, but take last week's episode with its internet dating subplot. Conventional television wisdom is that internet dating is for losers and serial killers, and that's how the show plays it. Katie is surreptitious about her online dating, and the other characters look somewhat askance at her for it. Never mind that half of the commenters here would snap up the chance to date Autumn Reeser—and y'all are catches, every one of you—but because she likes science and comic books, she must be a disaster socially?
These things may be lazy writers' attempts to capture some kind of “America,” but No Ordinary Family's treatment of crime and crime-fighting starts to cross the line of politicization. As I mentioned in the comments a couple of weeks ago, the crimes on No Ordinary Family tend to be of the sort that white upper-middle class families fear. They are home invasions or wedding robberies and not shitty liquor store holdups. They're a gang of carjackers who also beat people up. The police are presented as corrupt and lazy, when they don't have their hands tied behind their backs by a system “more concerned about the rights of criminals than of victims.” This is the kind of rhetoric which was employed successfully by right-wing “law and order” politicians like Ronald Reagan in the 1960's to great effect.
The “law and order” speeches of that era were often race-based, as the incendiary rhetoric of Black Power leaders like Stokely Carmichael was deliberately aimed in part at frightening middle-class whites. Ironically, No Ordinary Family has gone out of its way to depict a diverse criminal society. Most of its thugs are white, with a few Latinos sprinkled in for good measure, and tonight, a multi-racial TV gang. This post-racial criminality demonstrates a new form of conservativism in American mythology: the fear of offending anyone.
This is a wise survival technique for the show. Just a few weeks ago, a piece about how Republican viewers were necessary for shows to become ratings hits made the rounds, and there's no reason to believe that No Ordinary Family wouldn't have a significant amount of Republican viewers. On the other hand, those critically acclaimed cult series that we may want to see as influences for No Ordinary Family are not mainstream hits, so I don't expect No Ordinary Family to start following their lead and become the next Mad Men. Instead, I suspect we'll continue to sit through this muddled homage to an American ideal that never really existed. The kids will remain in high school, even though there's no real point to it. Jim will continue to be a vigilante hiding from the cops as he works with them, even though there's no real point to it.
So there's my five paragraphs of meta (beat that, VanDerWerff!). Onto tonight's episode....
The team-ups that have made the show most interesting are escalating, and characters' plots are intertwining more, which is good for the show. The JJ-plot is the main one this week, as his Snidely Whiplash-esque math teacher discovers him hacking the school's computers and decides to turn him in because, well, this mustache won't twirl itself, dammit. As he drives away from JJ and Jim's entreaties to not be evil, his car gets sideswiped and he gets Washed with an iron bar from the ... I don't know where the iron bar came from, actually. But it creates a condition where he's slowly dying, but the bar can't be removed without causing to bleed to death unless *dramatic music* someone who's really fast can quickly suture his wounds, posthaste. JJ tries to convince Stephanie to do the surgery, leading to Jim yelling, and this really happened, “That's enough crazy talk for one night!”
Ten minutes later, with great power comes great responsibility, and we get a mother-son team-up for the surgery. It's actually pretty cool, character-wise, although JJ's “seeing body parts” special effect isn't very exciting. Conveniently, the teacher, his life now saved, has forgotten JJ's transgressions, which, I guess, means that JJ will stay in high school.
The S-plot and J-plot are basically the same this week. Jim is sporadically losing his powers, while Stephanie and Katie try to figure out what's going wrong. They find this out after a Romantic Television Moment complete with rose petals and candles, really, gets interrupted by a phone call from George. Jim is trying to hunt down the aforementioned carjackers, a point that's hammered home with typical No Ordinary Family subtlety when he picked up a newspaper with the front page headline “CARJACKERS LEAVE CITY IN FEAR.”
Katie and Stephanie first look at it from the point of view that it might be a virus, then an allergy. Meanwhile, Katie's budding relationship with Watcher leads to him kissing her, which leads to her realizing that Stephanie's lip gloss may be the issue. Apparently, Stephanie complained in great detail, at work, about George's telephonic cock-blocking. They figure the problem out, and Jim has his powers back when he fights the bad guys. And, to be honest, the fight was pretty entertaining. The look on Chiklis' face as he pretends to be shot, his kung-fu bullet-grabbing, and then his tire toss were all fun to watch. It's moments like this that make me think that yes, this show really can go somewhere.
And then there's the D-plot, which makes me think that it'll just spin its wheels forever. Remember that guy that Daphne liked last week? Well, he's back, and this time ... this time Daphne reads his mind to hook up with him in exactly the same way as she did last week, but JJ doesn't help her this time, so she has to muddle through a Wacky Television Sushi Date. And she does muddle through – up to and including being served live prawns, but then she feels guilty when he wants to be with her, so she tells him she's a fake.
In form, the D-plot is pretty weak and redundant, but there were actually some nice touches. Daphne goes to JJ for help with her date again, but since he's in the middle of a life-or-death situation, he tells her off, saying something along the lines of “If you lost your powers, would you be happy with how you used them?” It's awfully articulate for JJ, but it's actually a pretty effective scene, especially given how petty Daphne and her powers have been so far. She (and perhaps the showrunners) acknowledge this when she comes clean to her crush, saying that she doesn't really know who she is. Time will tell if this is a turning point for the character or just a convenient conclusion to an awkward storyline.
The season-long story arc gets a bit more interesting in this episode, as Katie's date with Vader gives his character a bit more depth. He tells Katie that he was an orphan, but his boss took him under his wing and gave him a chance. Cliché, yes, but it also leads towards what some of you noted last week: that he seemed to be having second thoughts about his status as Sith Apprentice. The end of the episode also showed that CEO Palpatine was giving him an injection. Adding powers? Suppressing them? Green heroin buddies? Who knows?
As the characters start to become more comfortable with their powers, I think No Ordinary Family is showing more comfort with its characters. The team-ups happening more and more regularly are a good sign for the series, and this episode, at the very least, is leading the show more and more in the right direction.
- Amy Acker's back! For about 30 seconds, but this bodes well.
- “What's it gonna be, man? The nookie or the crookie?”
- “The only thing ruining his performance is your phone call.” Hey, can't Stephanie just have a quickie with Jim?
- “What an adorable kind of Breakfast Club you guys have!” This is the outright villainy I wanted from the math teacher. Well done, No Ordinary Family.
- The kids seemed especially dumb tonight, with JJ getting caught hacking the school's computers and Daphne claiming she can speak Japanese. And yet they still win every fight with their parents.
- Live prawns? Seriously?
- “I was on a trip to Russia, and I thought I was allergic to the water there, but it turns out I was just drinking vodka!” Okay, I'm officially on Team Autumn Reeser after that line. I laughed, hard.
- Speaking of Reeser, she played her date with Vader so well that I really wanted it to succeed, even knowing that it was a total sham. She needs her own show. This sidekick stuff is not enough.
- Five seconds after it's clear that the ingredient in Steph's lipstick which causes Jim's power outage is his Kryptonite, the show declares that they've found Jim's Kryptonite. That may be a new record for No Ordinary Family.
- Next week No Ordinary Family is moving an hour later, and the preview showed a Pyro-type supervillain and Stephanie joining Jim as a vigilante. I'm actually kind of excited about that.