I saw one prominent TV critic call No Ordinary Family “painfully ordinary” after the pilot. It was not a sentiment that I shared, and I certainly think the show can work. But I am concerned that the “Ordinary” part of the title may be what's holding the show back.
There are advantages to art with generic qualities. The less specific (and “objective”) it is, the easier it is for the viewer to project what he or she wants to see onto the art. At its best, it's not generic – it's iconic. So theoretically, it may seem that No Ordinary Family works best if the family is “ordinary.” Yet there are major problems with this in practice. A television show needs specifics to work, and we're not getting those. The show takes place in L.A., but it hasn't actually mentioned this yet. Some of you mentioned that Daphne doesn't have a personality, which I'd disagree with, but we are short on her interests – we've seen her play basketball, but we don't know if she even likes it. JJ reads comics. These are less teenagers than they are “teenagers.” And it isn't an ordinary family so much as an “ordinary family” on television. They're decently well-off, their problems are personal instead of structural, and they are of course white.
I think this is part of the reason why the show's most appealing characters are the sidekicks played by Romany Malco and Autumn Reeser. They seem to exist within the world, with their own interests and motivations. As the show goes on, it will necessarily have to give the characters and world more of a history. It may be good and it may be bad, but at least it will be more interesting. But the longer it spins its wheels by making the Powells seem generic, the less interesting it'll be.
Tonight's episode seemed like it was taking strides towards that, but only half-heartedly. We met two people in JJ and Daphne's world, Sarah and Megan, and the kids tried and failed to connect with them romantically and empathically, respectively. Both storylines seemed to start and end in this episode, however.
The structure of the episode was quite interesting tonight. The family members had their own individual stories, but they also interwove with each other. The episode started with the family attending a wedding which got hit by robbers, who stole Stephanie's wedding ring, an affront to Jim's masculinity which he could not let be. As Jim learned the joys of vigilante justice, Stephanie discovered that in order to get her research funding, she had to give a blood sample to the company (and her boss, the apparent villain of the story). She and Katie became concerned that her powers would be discovered, so Katie gave her blood sample for her. This was a bad idea, and it forces Stephanie to break into the lab and replace the sample with a non-incriminating one. Daphne, meanwhile, telepathically discovers that a friend is going through a parents' divorce, and wants to tell her friend how she knows. Finally, JJ has a crush on a girl named Sarah, and asks Daphne to read her mind, and Daphne discovers that Sarah's not interested in JJ.
All of the plots involve lying, to some degree or another. Jim has to lie to everyone about his vigilante activity. JJ is still lying to the family about his powers. Daphne lies to her friend when she has the chance, but also discovers her dad's lies (seriously – why would you lie to a known telepath?) The show's early reputation is that it hammers home its themes for the entire running time, but it's to No Ordinary Family's credit that it only spends about half of the episode talking about the theme of lies.
“No Ordinary Ring” also demonstrated an interesting, mature ambivalence about dishonesty. Jim's dishonesty towards his family is lambasted by Daphne, and Stephanie shows disapproval. Daphne's lie to her friend is treated as understandable and maybe even necessary. However, her lie to JJ about why Sarah doesn't like him is an utter disaster. And nobody questions Stephanie's dishonest blood sample.
The balance between heroics and family is a little better in this episode. I'm liking Kay Panabaker more and more when she's righteously pissed off at her parents, and Stephanie starting showing more personality than the wet blanket she's been coming across as at times. JJ hiding his power from the family may soon wear out its welcome, but he's developing nicely as a character. I also liked that the action started out immediately, before the credits even rolled.
The writing is still a problem. There was far too much generic “wackiness” in place of humor. Look, Jim is trying to dance but he's chubby and white! Hey, he tackled the guy with the knife, but the knife was just to cut the cake! And some of the dialogue with Jim and Stephanie's date at the end was unsurprisingly cringe-worthy.
However, I believe that the problem isn't so much the dialogue as it is the characters and setting, like I mentioned at the start. The actors on this show are good enough that they can turn mediocre dialogue worthwhile, if they have strong enough characters to inhabit. I'm feeling more confident that this show's awkwardness is just early growing pains, and not a fundamental flaw.
- To continue on my four paragraphs of meta: I think Buffy the Vampire Slayer is the most successful live-action superhero TV show. Sunnydale and Sunnydale High were initially constructed as Anytown, USA, and it worked for the viewer to relate to. However, after three episodes, we knew much more about Buffy, her friends, family, allies, and enemies, her past, etc., than we know here. The show worked because the characters and settings were specific, but its themes were universal.
- Speaking of Buffy, the Cordelia-says-exactly-what-she's-thinking gag from “Earshot” is one of my favorites in the series. So I thoroughly enjoyed Katie's demands for food when meeting the kids.
- “You dance like you're trying to get away from angry villagers.”
- What kind of kid sets up a study date on a Friday night when she actually wants to study? Not a 'C' student, that's for sure.
- Zooming way in on the face of the person that Daphne is reading is somewhat disorienting. If that's the goal, it's working, if not, I hope it improves.
- “I was the flower girl at both of your weddings!”
- I expected an Arrested Development-style flashback when Jim and Stephanie started reminiscing about their wedding.
- It looks like they're naming every episode “No Ordinary ________.” I'm looking forward to “No Ordinary Tea & Crumpets,” “No Ordinary Dance-Off,” “No Ordinary Ninja Army,” “No Ordinary Brick of Heroin,” and maybe “No Ordinary Clip Show.” What would you like to see?