The main reason I'm looking forward to new episodes of No Ordinary Family (premiere: Sep. 28, 2010 on ABC) is that they, at least, won't already have been thoroughly spoiled by the show's own network. ABC's relentless publicity campaign, including online previews and trailers ahead of theatrical films, has systematically revealed every single aspect of the Powells' origin story, up to and including a subplot-resolving plot point that occurs 42 minutes into the 44-minute episode. It's tough enough making an original superhero story these days. Why make your premiere seem even more like déjà vu than it already will?
Family Dysfunction Trumps Superpowers
Origin stories are getting to be a problem anyway. They used to be my favorite thing when it came to comic books: I didn't really care about the Flash, for example, but I loved reading his origin story. Even Superman's origin story (or stories, because it kept mutating) was a lot more interesting than most Superman plotlines.
But when it came to film adaptations, it became the norm to spend the whole first movie on the origin and exploration of power. It worked great for Superman (1978) and Spider-Man (2002), but by the time we got to Fantastic Four (2005) and Hulk (2003) it was getting to be a bore. My favorite thing about The Incredible Hulk (2008) was that the origin story was concisely rendered before the opening credits were over.
And so here, when we have Jim and Stephanie Powell (Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz), along with their kids Daphne and JJ (Kay Panabaker and Jimmy Bennett) crash-landing into a weird stretch of the upper Amazon and exposed to something that gives them super abilities, we hit all the tried and true story turns. Dad, previously feeling useless, now believes he can Do Something. Dad and Mom don't tell each other, for some reason, and instead trade barbs about the devolution of their marriage. The kids complain about how annoying it is to have powers (or not have them -- JJ's manifest late). Sidekicks quantify and categorize their newfound abilities and get even more excited than the heroes. Finally the experience of their powers brings them all together, closer than ever. Did any of this seem like anything other than rote plot-by-numbers to anyone?
Wonder and Perspective
What's really perplexing is that there's very little sense of wonder in any of this, on the one hand, and at the same time there's also a lack of perspective. It's not too surprising that a TV character would take the acquisition of superpowers in stride, given the prevalence of the supernatural on television and in the movies: superpowers are all around us, though only Jim Powell becomes energized by his new abilities. At the same time, in a world as complicated as this, there's only so much a superstrong, bullet-catching guy like Jim can do, even leaving aside supervillains, and his struggles to be able to apply his powers to the crushing momentum of 7 billion ordinary lives on the planet would be a lot more challenging to write. We do get a sampling of this--Jim is injured, to his surprise, in an early fight; but this is offset by two occasions in the pilot where he inserts himself into events and protects a potential victim.
Greg Berlanti's previous supernatural series, Eli Stone, had kinda the same issue: Eli suffered ramifications in his personal life from his prophesies, but his ability to right wrongs had the full backing of destiny. Dramatically, that's a problem. It doesn't have to be that way. One of the reasons I loved Early Edition, for example, was that Gary had this huge advantage--knowledge of the future--and yet he still had to fight to make a difference every time. Superhero-wise, so far, Jim has it easy.
Personal Problems, Personal Powers
Of course it's the personal lives of the Powells that are the core of the show: the powers they acquire, as the ending of the pilot demonstrates, exist primarily to interact with their family dysfunctions. Each of the Powells has one (1) lifestyle dysfunction. Daphne is concerned with her social standing: she texts all the time and worries about her boyfriend being okay with "waiting." JJ is doing poorly in school and is detached. Jim is glum because he feels he's not helping anyone as a police sketch artist. Stephanie feels guilty her success as a "research scientist" has required sacrificing connecting with her family. Interestingly, each of their abilities addresses exactly those problems. They got the powers they needed. (Expect further revelations about the Amazon plane crash.) This is superpowers as existential therapy.
The casting is strong. Michael Chiklis (The Shield, The Fantastic Four) is exactly right for this, especially since he conveys determined but ordinary guy so easily. Julie Benz (Dexter, Angel) is delightful as usual. Kay Panabaker, already a veteran (she's older than she looks), plays the Typical Teen Girl with just the right balance of self-consciousness and wariness. Jimmy Bennett (who might look familiar from playing the hot-rodding young James Kirk in Star Trek) aces his underachiever son role, and what he does with his abilities is left open to potential. Romany Malco, as Jim's enthusiastic sidekick George, is stuck with the role of a supporting cast member whose existence revolves entirely around the hero, but he essays it with panache.
Potential for Development
Perhaps the pilot is the wrong episode to judge No Ordinary Family on. Whether the series is any good really depends on the road Berlanti et al. take from here.
If they develop conflict and drama within and around the family that's based on their human experience and seasoned by the experience of their superpowers (as an example, though the "powers" only apply to one family member, I'm thinking of the underrated Joan of Arcadia), then this series has real potential for growth and development. If, however, it's all about the powers, and Jim and gang are just running around having an Incredibles style family adventure every week and making with the biff! bam! pow! and high-fiving and hugging at the end of the episode, they're sunk.