Wed, 12 January 2011 ordinary unordinary lives

No Ordinary Family

A new American television series, No Ordinary Family, has just begun broadcast on this side of the Atlantic. Its premise is simple: an ‘ordinary’ family – wife, husband, daughter and son – with the the usual moderate middle class disfunctionality gain super-powers and must adjust to them. I’ve seen two episodes, and will probably watch a few more out of mild-mannered curiosity.

In the pilot the show quickly established the Powell family dynamics: Stephenie (Julie Benz), the Mom, is a scientist, career woman and the main wage earner; Jim (Michael Chiklis), the dad, is a police sketch artist and failed painter who feels inadequate despite being the main carer for his children; Daphne (Kay Panabaker) is the sulky teenaged daughter obsessed with her boyfriend and always texting; J.J. (Jimmy Bennett) is the nice, dumb younger brother who feels his parents are disappointed in him.

There are obviously seasoned, talented writers on this show because within 15 minutes of the start the Powell family characters were established, they flew to Brazil and were dunked in a lake after a plane crash. (American shows are obsessed with plane crashes – Lost, Fringe, The Event, etc.) The first episode got to the emergence of their superpowers with no dilly-dallying. Jim discovers he is super strong, Stephanie can move very fast, Daphne becomes telepathic and J.J. evolves into a brainiac.

Jim is helped by his district attorney buddy George St. Cloud (Romany Malco) to discover his powers, and Stephanie turns to her lab assistant Katie Andrews (Autumn Reeser) to figure out what’s happening to her and her family.

While there is talent and potential in the show it really needs to take everything up several notches to engage my attention fully. It’s not going for the gritty tone of Heroes, but rather for the joie de vivre of silver age comic book superhero stories. Yet, as much as I like some of the elements in the series it’s too familiar. I’m not very interested in an upper middle class white family with minor communication issues. I like the fact that Jim’s an artist and Stephanie is a scientist, although I think Jim’s not bohemian enough and Stephanie’s a little too perfect (her main problem is that she doesn’t spend enough time with the kids and her husband! Oh bother!). The kids are characterless, and are written as annoying and over-privileged.

In particular Daphne gets to say the line about how she doesn’t want super-powers because high school is hard enough.

Stop. No teenager says this! I’ve been hating this line since I was a kid reading books and comics in which children bemoaned having adventures. Every teenager believes the universe rotates around him/her, and having a special ability just confirms that fact. No Ordinary Family is a little too 1950s in tone with occasional flashes of 1999.

Still, lab assistant Katie is my favourite character. Not only is she established as a comic book fangirl, but she’s funny, clever and resourceful. George does his best with his sidekick character but it feels like the actor is wasted with the overblown comedic role.

Jim starts crime-fighting with the help of George – to mixed results – and through his antics it’s established that there are other people out there with super powers but who don’t mow their lawn or get good grades in school. Good grief! What’s the world coming to? In this kind of scenario the bad guys have a tendency to become more interesting than the goodies.

We’ve seen these storylines before, so the writers should have at least have set it somewhere new or mixed things up with the family composition.

They should have taken a leaf out of the Misfits playbook and at least made the characters act and speak like they’re part of the twentieth-first century.

I can’t see this show lasting beyond one season if it doesn’t take more risks with characters or plots in the coming episodes.

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