Who among us who does not like origin stories? They're driving the superhero renaissance, with reboots like Batman Begins and Marvel tossing every major character at least one film. There's also Spider-Man, who has single-handedly had several high-profile recreations of his origin story in the last decade, both in comics and in film – soon twice!
To be honest, I'm not really a fan of the origin story. They're generally repetitive and occasionally just dumb. The pinnacle of this foolishness may have been Batman Begins' foray into dime store Freudianism when young Bruce Wayne discovers the cave filled with bats who traumatize him into becoming a bat man, or something (although the 2009 Star Trek film's fatherless “bad boy” Kirk comes in a comfortable second in the silly origins sweepstakes).
So it was with some trepidation that I approached the pilot of No Ordinary Family. In addition to my wariness towards origin stories, major network superhero shows have something of a patchy recent history thanks to Heroes, and of course it's hard to see the premise as being anything other than a live-action The Incredibles. On the other hand, I figure if it turns out to be terrible, at least we'll have some fun, right? The T.V. Club Heroes write-ups were consistently entertaining enough that even though I wasn't watching, I was reading. On the other hand, since this is my first gig with the A.V. Club, it'll probably be better for me if the show turns out well.
My worries/hopes of No Ordinary Family being terrible have been dampened after watching the pilot. I liked it. At times, I even liked it a lot. The cast is quite strong - part of the reason I was drawn to the show was the cast, particularly Julie Benz and Michael Chiklis as the leads. They do good work as Jim and Stephanie Powell, although Romany Malco as George St. Cloud may do the most consistent entertaining, delivering the biggest laugh-lines without devolving into the Wacky Black Stereotype (hard to do as a district attorney, I hope).
I may have teenager-on-TV-show PTSD, thanks to watching later seasons of Buffy recently, but neither of the teens on No Ordinary Family's seem so bad. They weren't the major focus of this episode, though I'm sure we'll see much more of them. Kay Panabaker as Daphne, the older Powell child, demonstrates some decent chops, managing to turn somewhat forced jokes about Twitter and texting into comedy. The younger brother, JJ (Jimmy Bennett) didn't have as much to do, although he showed some worrying signs of sullenness to go along with his unfortunate Twilight-hair.
The origin story of the main characters is handled deftly. It's not at the level of the Morrison/Quitely All-Star Superman with its single page of “Doomed planet/concerned scientists/last hope/kindly couple” but it moves quickly and doesn't get bogged down on details. The characters get into the plane crash that delivers their superpowers even before the title is shown. It's a good example of using “closure” - letting the brain fill in the blanks. A couple broad strokes (Stephanie works too much! Daphne is boy-crazy!) serve their purpose, and then it's straight into the heart of the episode, which shows the family's discovery of their powers and their reactions to the changes.
Most good superhero stories deal with two main issues: the stories that develop based on the powers themselves, and the characters' essential humanity which the powers accent or corrupt. No Ordinary Family explicitly wants to deal with these things – it's right there in the title! - and by and large, it succeeds at setting the table for them to work.
The special effects are excellent for television, apart from the CGI plane crash. Chiklis sells Jim's powers with the kind of childlike glee that made the first Spider-Man film so fun. Julie Benz doesn't seem to be having as much fun, but a kind of resignation fits her character and her strengths as an actress better than sheer joy. Telepathy, Daphne's power, is difficult to film, but the show does okay with it – it's no Animal Instincts.
It's a little too soon to say if the family drama aspects of the show work. The characters aren't well-formed enough yet for us to know if they can hold it together. There's certainly potential here. Benz and Chiklis have good chemistry when they're trying to be loving, but their arguments seem forced. I did like the role reversal of the mother-as-breadwinner while the father watches his life go nowhere. Chiklis overdoes his depression to some degree, but hey, this is Pilotville, and Mayor Exposition has a speech he'd like to give you.
The episode isn't just character development. There is a main storyline to the piece, with a villain who seems a little bit too dark for the generally PG atmosphere of the rest of the episode. It does drag a bit later on, when the family starts revealing their powers to each other. Yeah, it paints in broad strokes occasionally to the point of being kind of dumb, but it has a Silver Age comics kind of charm to its dumbness. All-in-all, this was a solid hour of television. There are dozens of ways a superhero show can go wrong, but No Ordinary Family has the building blocks in place to make this superhero show go right.
Stray Thoughts and Spoilers:
- There will be some spoilers for tonight's episode in this section, so avoid if you want to be as pure as possible.
- The weakest power shown in the pilot is JJ's, which mostly manifests in numbers flashing in an equation.
- Hey, it's a supernatural show premised on a plane crash airing on Tuesdays on ABC. That bodes well.
- “We're gonna be fine, I promise. Have I ever lied to you before? About anything this important?” “...Yeah!”
- I'm happy to see that the pilot establishes that others have superpowers early on. There's an implication in the show's premise that the Powells are the only people who have those powers, which would get tired pretty quickly.
- So, if this guy could teleport, why did he need someone to post bail for him anyway?
- The No Ordinary Family website has a “Motion Comic” which goes into the show's mythology to the extent that it seems almost like an ad for a completely different kind of show than the pilot demonstrated. I don't think I recommend it, but it's there.
- “Gave you the wrong card, sorry.”
- The city the Powells live in doesn't have a name. The show's creators may want to remedy that pretty quickly, it's unnecessary awkwardness.
- There were a couple references to superhero comics and culture: a Kitty Pryde doll, and George saying “Most of them can fly!” It'll be interesting to see how self-aware No Ordinary Family gets.
- Has a guidance counselor in a TV show ever managed to do the “Your child may have a learning disability” pitch well? Dyslexia isn't the fucking plague, and ADD doesn't mean the kid is stupid - in fact, it's usually the opposite. Yet the TV counselor never seems to get to that point before the parent(s) storm off.
- The episode ends with the “talking to the camera” narration gimmick turning out to be a “talking to a therapist” gimmick. I'm not sure which makes me worry about the show's future more.