ZOË RICE: Origin stories! As a lover of superhero fare, I can easily say few tidbits of storytelling thrill me more. Souped up spiders! Murdered parents and a cave full of bats! Gamma bomb accident; now don’t make him angry! But here’s the key to a good origin story: You gotta love the heroes first. Otherwise…who cares?
No Ordinary Family, unfortunately, has given us quite an ordinary superhero story, at least so far. Talented Michael Chiklis and his wife, played by Julie Benz (hey, it’s Darla! From Angel!) feel like they’re just going through the motions. She’s a busy scientist, and he’s a dad and a police sketch artist, and they don’t have time for each other. Add in two teenage kids who text a lot, and you get a family that’s drifting apart. But there’s something surfacey about it all. Where is the whimsy, charm, and humor of The Incredibles, for instance? What makes the Powell family worth our emotional investment? Perhaps because the story is told so linearly, we don’t get a chance to warm to these characters before we witness the accident that will wind up bestowing them all with super powers. Which brings us to…the accident.
A plane crash, boom, some swimming, a group hug. Something feels rushed here. Later we’ll see the green phosphorescence in the water–our intrepid Scientist Mom very quickly and with no evidence whatsoever decides that was the culprit. Clearly those sea plants were responsible for Mom being able to run super duper fast, Dad being able to catch bullets with his fist, Daughter being able to read minds, and Son becoming a math genius. The son’s powers are the last to manifest, but when he’s learning disabled and failing in school, it’s not hard to predict what his ultimate green-plant-given power will be.
A superhero story is only as good as its characterization. You may think you watch for the action, the cool fights, the truth, justice, and the American Way. But the best superhero epics rely on the fact that the protagonists, with all their impressive abilities, are inherently outsiders. They’re different, conflicted, and driven by intense motivations to do what they do. What are our Non-Ordinary Family’s motivations? So far we know that the mother with no time can now be in two places almost at once. The impotent-feeling father who sketches criminals but doesn’t catch them can now join his policeman brethren in the field. The girl who fears her friends hide things from her now knows their innermost thoughts. And the boy who struggles in school now breezes effortlessly through his exams. But that’s it. That’s all we got from our origin story. Unfortunately, I was never in a place to begin with where I cared if Mom found extra time, Dad caught the bad guys, Girl knew her boyfriend was cheating, or Boy understood his math problem.
And really, getting the viewer to care is the whole key to the origin story. Without investment in our heroes, why watch what they do?
The Pros: Good family chemistry, Decent, although occasionally slapstick, special effects, Nice balance between family and superhero themes, Genre savvy characters
The Cons: Terrible rationalizations, Sloppy writing/design, Derivative super powers
The Conclusion: Worth checking out the second episode
I first saw the pilot of No Ordinary Family two months ago at San Diego Comic Con. Although the crowd there seemed delighted (or perhaps that was a reaction to free teeshirts,) I had my objections. Why would a man who spontaneously caught a bullet assume he could do it again, catching a 90 mph baseball? Why is the husband, who is the one pushing to reconnect with his wife, the one who leaves a watch on during afternoon sex rather than the wife, who is always pressed for time? Why would a research scientist–the V.P. of Research–jump to the conclusion that a strange “phosphorescence” is the only possible variable changing their bodies when she only had two data points? Perhaps the milk they drank was supercharging families all around the country. A scientist would analyze. I had hoped these little issues would be changed by the time the episode premiered. Unfortunately, no such luck.
But these are little quibbles. Sloppiness rather than badness, and easily fixed. Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz offer a convincing portrait of a couple of love each other, but have grown apart. The structure of the first episode has these two characters relating the expository information directly to a camera, a situation revealed at the end to be a marriage counselor. Thus, setting up the core of the show to be about this relationship–not the powers, not the secret devious plotting. Should No Ordinary Family stay on this path, then it might fare better than the Heroes it resembles.