Wednesday, August 25, 2010

No Ordinary Show

"I have a lair...with wifi."
Heroes with heart, Everwood with superpowers, ABC's new dramedy No Ordinary Family surprised me more than the members of the Powell family were when they discovered their new abilities. Since ABC put the premiere episode on their website recently, I seized the opportunity to get my viewing of it "out of the way" so I could cross it off my list of new fall shows to try. Why was I so sure this show would fail? Because it's a rehash of everything that has been done so poorly over the last few years. Normal people get super powers...yeah, no one has forgotten the Heroes debacle. A generic family that just can't quite get along...yeah, no one has forgotten Everwood or the now defunct WB network. Though it seemed like the show would have to succeed in spite of these elements, it is exactly because of them that it soars.

Before the opening minimalist title screen (now a television staple thanks to LOST, which isn't the last time this show borrows from that game changing program), I was hooked. Show creator and writer Greg Berlanti, best know for creating and running the aforementioned Everwood, re-introduced me to his wit. In the middle of a dangerous sequence, the socially networked teenage daughter Daphne played by Kay Panabaker answers the question "Who are you texting now?" with the flippant retort "God." Then, a mere few minutes later, Berlanti also reminded me how adept he is at tugging at my heart strings with only a couple moments of footage. As father of the family Jim played by Michael Chiklis walked around his house and narrated, I could feel the distance between the family members. Where so many shows fail, No Ordinary Family had succeeded almost immediately. It reached both my head and my heart (metaphorically speaking).

Then, everything changed. (Come on, I had to use that transition in a story about super powers.) Jim accidentally discovers his super strength and the geekdom is kicked up a notch. The scenes where he tests his powers are reminiscent of Tobey Maguire's Spider Man. After Jim's wife Stephanie played by Julie Benz discovers she's incredibly fast, she demonstrates her new ability to her X-Men loving lab assistant by insanely quickly retrieving a Kitty Pryde action figure on the other side of the large research building they work at. The kicker of all this is the source of their powers. It's so nerdtastic and timing appropriate, you might not even believe me.

The family takes a vacation to a tropical locale. There, while on a private tour, their plane crashes into glowing water. No wonder Jacob et al didn't want anyone to go into the light. Who knew the black smoke was just the manifestation of the MiB's inner super power? Even more fantastically, when Stephanie realizes they gained their abilities there, she declares that "it's the only thing that makes sense, if any of this makes any sense." Take that Damon Lindelof and Carlton Cuse. Don't think this show is a dichotomous venture between geekdom and family drama however. What holds the two threads together is that each family member's new power seems to be in response to his or her greatest weakness...but I'll leave all of that for you to figure out for yourself.

No matter how well it navigates its themes, what truly makes this show heroic is the element that can make or break any television show, it's cast. Chiklis makes you forget his role in The Shield as he completely embodies the new millennial husband who isn't the family breadwinner and never got his career off the ground. Benz is phenomenal (and hotter than ever) simultaneously managing to be softer than the evil Darla in Angel and stronger than the weak Rita in Dexter. I also have to note that the voice she has chosen for this character is her most bearable yet. I might even dare to call it pleasant. The highlight performance for me, however, was Romy Malco, best know for his roles in The 40 Year Old Virgin and Weeds, as DA George St. Cloud and Jim's best friend. Though he doesn't have much screen time and isn't given a whole lot to work with, his character is overflowing with comedy and conscience that fleshes out the universe in an important way.

Though the show isn't perfect, it does manage to turn its one misstep around in the closing minutes. Throughout the episode, Jim and Stephanie narrate in a way that is reminiscent of reality television confessionals, The Office, and Modern Family. This technique mainly feels unnecessarily tacked on, as if it's used in order to check another box on a "what works" in contemporary American television rubric. However, there is ultimately a point to it that solidifies it within the narrative. I won't spoil the details, but I will say it presents a nice surprise for fans of Everwood. Oh, and just in case you thought this show was completely devoid of social commentary and Berlanti lost his ability to tickle us politically, the main villain in this episode robs banks wearing an Obama mask. Good luck interpreting that one.

The scariest thing about this show for me is how far it could fall. There are plenty of places for it to go (it even hints at a broader mythology), but the worry is that it could go in the wrong direction. After one episode Panabaker's angsty high schooler Daphne is much more sympathetic than Hayden Panettiere's odd Claire in Heroes, though I can imagine the character progressing along a similar route. And though the LOST nod was nice, I don't know if I can take another show squandering all of its beautiful setup. Regardless of what happens in the long run, the "Pilot" of No Ordinary Family is no ordinary hour of television. If you're a geek with a heart...or just a geek...or just have a's worth tuning in for.

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