During No Ordinary Family's two-week hiatus, I got into a brief conversation with Twitter Friend of The A.V Club (and critic for the Pacific Northwest Inlander) Daniel Walters about what the show could do to improve. His initial suggestion was to “foreground the superhero stuff”in the same manner as Buffy, which would allow the family-based drama to emerge naturally. He also suggested that better, Whedon-esque dialogue would be an improvement.
I don't disagree with either of these things at all, but I'm not sure they're a magic bullet. I really think that there are dozens of ways that No Ordinary Family could improve. It just needs to pick one and stick with it. Just a few from off the top of my head:
- Give the characters more personality and personal history: (This episode actually, finally, happily, and many other adverbs, mentioned what college Stephanie went to, M.I.T..)
- Make it fun again! I liked the pilot because the characters enjoyed learning about and using their superpowers.
- Stop pretending that the Powells can live normal lives with superpowers. High school is almost completely pointless for telepaths and supergeniuses.
- More superheroes and superhero fights.
- Fewer monologues.
- Funnier dialogue—if you've got two gifted comic actors in Romany Malco and Autumn Reeser, use them!
The point of this isn't necessarily to say that No Ordinary Family is terrible. I still feel roughly the same way about it now that I did about its pilot—it's a pretty average TV show with some good moments and the potential to be a lot more. And I don't necessarily expect it to be much better even now, six episodes in. Many genre shows take a long time to achieve their potential. Star Trek: The Next Generation, Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and Babylon 5 all took roughly a season-and-a-half to start getting great. However, they weren't primetime, major network TV shows. As such, they may have had more time and creative freedom to get to greatness. No Ordinary Family may be exactly what it is now, for three or four more years.
All that said, if there's one path that I really don't think No Ordinary Family should take if it wants to improve, that path would be recycling crappy sitcom plots like tonight's “Meet the parents!” episode. I mean, I can understand why a comedy might do that kind of plot: It creates comedic tension by changing the power dynamic while also being something that happens in real life. On the other hand, because it's so easy, it's something of a cliché, and it really doesn't speak well regarding No Ordinary Family's writers that they're already resorting to the trope.
The best thing that I can say about No Ordinary Family's “Meet the Parents” episode tonight is that at least it went all out with the concept. Many of you have commented about the absolute cartoon villainy of the average antagonist jerk in the show, and Stephanie's visiting parents (played by Cybill's Cybill Shepard and Babylon 5's Bruce McGill) are no exception. They show up unannounced, belittle Stephanie's intelligence at the same time as Jim's manhood, pass judgment on everything, and immediately snoop around the house as soon as they get the chance. It all culminates with them accusing Jim of infidelity at a family fucking dinner because he's sneaking around at all hours of night. Classy! I've gotta say, No Ordinary Family's enthusiasm in telling the traditional “male protagonist needs father-in-law's approval” story is as remarkable for its single-mindedness as it is for its utter lack of creativity.
I've been dreading this episode since I saw the previews, but I was pleasantly surprised at my lack of hatred towards its mediocrity. Most of the credit goes to the supporting actors, particularly Bruce McGill and Romany Malco. Malco's assertion to Jim that his in-laws are “emotional terrorists” is amusing enough, but McGill plays the emotional terrorist well enough that it is, in the immortal words of Homer Simpson, “funny 'cuz it's true.” Malco is on fire throughout the episode, funnier than he's been at any point since the pilot, particularly when eviscerating a cop who pulls him over.
The superhero plot of the episode is based around a series of home invasions by one-dimensional robbers. One of them gets scalded by hot water and takes his mask off, then threatens the teenager who lives in the home and sees the robber's face. The kid happens to be an acquaintance of Daphne's, and she discovers that he's lying about the home invasion—and then she sees what he saw by touching him, in a new twist on her telepathic power. She uses this power to help Jim draw a sketch of the robber, which leads to easily-foreseen complications, solved by Jim arriving in the nick of time.
If this is the show that No Ordinary Family wants to be, then I suppose that's not so bad. It's easy, mindless, and fairly entertaining. I won't declare myself a fan of it, but I can't say that I'll hate watching and writing about it.
- Has Daphne touched anyone else with her powers? I'm, uh, not about to go back and rewatch all the previous episodes to find out if this is new or a retcon.
- “You didn't call … ?”
- Yet another argument early on in the episode that the kids win—in this case, JJ complaining about being grounded for lying about his powers when the parents want to lie to the visiting grandparents.
- “I'm pretty sure this belongs in a different argument.” Chiklis and Benz can do funny, I think. Give them a chance!
- “You mean, Satan's branch of the A.A.U.P.?”
- “They hate your freedom!!”
- Daphne needs to play some poker. She's a wee bit easy to read. That's a problem for a telepath.
- “He's my cat. A-tom. As in, the unit of matter. It's a homonym!”
- “Think of the victim as much as you think of the criminal!” No Ordinary Family's treatment of criminals, criminality, and the justice system is pretty regressive. Looks like next week I'll have more to say about that.
- The green-screen Grand Canyon was, shall we say, problematic. Likewise, Jim's rooftop jumping seemed more artificial than usual.
- “Forget You?” No, fuck you.
- Amy Acker's going to show up next week for a triple-Angel reunion - Yay! Though you wouldn't know it from the previews - Boo! Hiss!