The Powells are an ordinary family with typically dysfunctional relationships. When dad Jim suggests they all join Stephanie on a work trip to South America to help them bond, their plane crashes into the Amazon and they barely escape alive.
But when they return home, each of them discovers they have developed extraordinary abilities – Jim has super-strength, Stephanie is super-fast, Daphne can read people’s minds and JJ possesses super-intelligence. Each must come to terms with their new-found abilities and the resultant impact on their lives.
Haven’t we been here before?
Something extraordinary has happened to us.
If the premise of No Ordinary Family sounds familiar, that’s because it is.
More than anything, this feels like a live-action, made-for-TV prequel to The Incredibles, right down to the knowing reference of Jim hurling a football several hundred yards for the super-fast Stephanie to retrieve.
There is also a distinct echo of Fantastic Four – Michael Chiklis‘s Jim is super-strong and practically invulnerable, while in Fantastic Four he played The Thing, who is, er, super-strong and practically invulnerable.
Teenagers adjusting to their developing abilities is one part Misfits and one part Smallville, while the issues they face while still trying to fit in at high school is reminiscent of the first three seasons of Buffy the Vampire Slayer. And the concept of ordinary people coming to terms with super-powers which reflect some element of their lives and personalities – as well as the scene in which Jim, testing his new powers, jumps off the roof of a tall building and fails to fly – sounds an awful lot like Heroes, don’t you think?
Dispensing with the family’s origin story in Stephanie-style super-quick time in the pilot’s first act allows for the introduction of the season’s ongoing story arc, as we discover the Powells are not the only ones with super-human abilities and that Stephanie’s boss at Global Tech, Dr Dayton King (Stephen Collins), is involved in some kind of associated nefarious plot.
It also affords breathing space for our characters to introduce both themselves and their powers as, in turn, we see the Powells discovering and then learning to deal with their new abilities. Jim, an unfulfilled police sketch artist, catches a bullet in a police station shoot-out. With the aid of his friend George St Cloud, he begins to test what he is truly capable of and starts out on the road to becoming a super-powered vigilante, complete with sidekick and a secret Batcave-style lair. Stephanie, the career woman who never has enough time for anything other than her work, finds she is capable of speeds in excess of 700 mph. Daphne’s telepathy kicks in, revealing that her boyfriend is sleeping with her best friend. And JJ, who has learning difficulties, discovers his heightened intelligence during a maths test in which he sees the solution to an algebraic problem literally resolving itself in front of him.
In the second episode, after Jim is mown down by some bank thieves’ getaway car and Stephanie crashes while running at over 300 mph, they agree not to use their powers until they better understand them. However they soon realise the temptation to use their abilities – whether it is for catching criminals or just to be a better mum – is too great.
Each family member learns how to harness and control their powers during this episode. Jim employs his strength to stop the thieves after they take George hostage. Stephanie uses her speed to retrieve a water sample from Arizona, while freeing up the time to get involved with organising the school fair. Daphne learns how to avoid being overwhelmed by other people’s thoughts in a crowd, while JJ discovers the importance of not standing out from the crowd too much as he realises he needs to rein in his ability.
Is it any good?
I have to admit to being somewhat sceptical beforehand, given the show’s obvious roots and coming only a few months after the end of Heroes, but No Ordinary Family gets off to a promising start. The opening episode in particular fizzes along at a cracking pace – albeit with a bit too much stilted exposition to hurry us along – showing us how the Powells gain their powers, giving us some insight into their family problems, and allowing us to join their journey of discovery while setting up the season’s ongoing major plotline. The Modern Family-style narration to camera was a bit me-too for anyone who also watches that show – thankfully it appears to have been a one-off device.
Both episodes strike the right balance between drama and fun, something the show will need to maintain on an ongoing basis. (One of the key causes of Heroes‘ ultimate downfall was that it stopped being both fun and funny, with every character weighed down by angst and other emotional baggage.) There are also some great comic book set-pieces allied to stunning CGI work. The ‘bullet-time’ effects depicting Stephanie’s super-speed are movie-quality, and the visualisation of JJ’s super-intelligence is cleverly done.
The series also openly acknowledges and embraces its origins, with plenty of knowing references for fans of comics and other similar shows. And it allows itself to have a little fun with some of the unwritten benefits of being a super-hero, showing Stephanie using her super-speed to do the housework, and Katie’s realisation that her super-metabolism means she will “be a size zero forever”.
And the main and supporting cast are both strong. Chiklis (The Shield, Fantastic Four) belies his imposing physical presence with a sensitive performance which conveys Jim’s frustration and personal frailties. Benz (Angel, Dexter) is the opposite, a willowy blonde who exudes strength and single-mindedness. (Little wonder she came within a whisker of being cast as TV’s Buffy the Vampire Slayer.) Kay Panabaker and Jimmy Bennett are both solid as the Powell teenagers. And Romany Malco – a personal favourite of mine as Conrad in the underrated Weeds – is perfectly cast as Jim’s sidekick and confidant George.
However, there are issues. The opening episode sometimes bowls along too fast for its own good, raising and then discarding questions such as how Stephanie isn’t blinded by particles in the air when running at full-speed – it is dismissed as being the effect of a “charged plasma field” (that old chestnut) – while the second one, despite its funny moments, unfolds a bit too slowly and lacks any significant jeopardy for our main characters. (Again, uneven pacing proved to be a major problem for Heroes.) We will need to see the peril level being ramped up significantly and quickly in upcoming episodes – preferably with the Powells working more in tandem with one another – and for the behind-the-scenes conspiracy to be something different from what we saw repeatedly on Heroes.
On balance, I really did like these opening episodes. But despite a solid start and a doffing of the cap in the direction of its forebears, No Ordinary Family will need to work doubly hard if it is to be seen as anything other than derivative. Had it been produced five years ago, this would probably have been a serious A-list hit. But with the meteoric rise – and almost as rapid fall – of Heroes, it is not enough for it to be merely good. If it is to survive beyond its first season, it will need to carve out its own distinct identity and be exceptional if it is to be viewed as no ordinary show.
No Ordinary Family trailer:
No Ordinary Family continues on Watch, Tuesday at 8pm.
1.01 Pilot – 8/10
1.02 No Ordinary Marriage – 6/10
Links: ABC official website, IMDb, TV.com, Wikipedia