No Ordinary Family: Pilot

“We’re no longer ordinary. But after everything, we are a family.”

I didn’t expect to love No Ordinary Family, and I don’t. It’s not dark, or sarcastic, or violent. There are no vampire bad boys or mysterious mythologies. No narrative tricks or astonishing production values. But it is sweet, well-acted, capably written, and charming. It’s good at what it does, and I hope it finds an audience, even if that audience doesn’t include me.

The Bennetts are an ordinary family: dad Jim, mom Stephanie, daughter Daphne, son J.J. On a forced family-bonding trip to Brazil they get into a plane crash and wind up swimming in some mystical goo that gives them all superpowers. How they learn to deal with, and love, and hate, those powers is the show’s primary conceit. How those powers affect them and the people around them will provide the plots of the episodes, and how the family remembers how much they love each other is the chewy emotional center that holds it all together.

Jim Bennett (Michael Chiklis from The Shield)

The Shield is an incredible television show, and much of that was due to the gravitas Michael Chiklis brought to the role of Vic Mackey, LAPD detective in the fictional Farmington neighborhood. Before The Shield, though, Chiklis was on The Commish: he played a bouncy happy goofy guy (I’ve only seen 15 minutes of that show, but I think that sums it up).

It would be easy to say that his character on NOF is a combination of those two men, with the brute strength of his role as The Thing in the Fantastic Four franchise added in for some superhero flair. But there’s more than that here: Chiklis’s Jim is a good man, and a strong man, who nonetheless feels completely useless as he watches his kids ignore him (in favor of texting their friends), and his wife dismiss him (because he has given up his dream). He is compassionate—in the 89 episodes of The Shield, I never once noticed his eye color. In this episode, I was amazed to see him confronting the new world of superheroism with wide blue-eyed wonder.

A self-described “failed artist [and] ineffectual civil servant,” Jim works as a sketch artist for the LAPD (or the “Pacific Bay Police,” as their squad cars say, for some bizarre reason). His discovery of his own super-strength is incredibly fun to watch, and the scene in which he discovers that he can’t fly is a great spin on the angst of the similar scene from Heroes. Jim likes his new power, and—while Vic Mackey with superhuman strength would probably bring the world to its knees—I don’t expect there will ever be a “Jim goes dark” arc on this show. He’s just too compassionate, and that’s his greatest strength.

Stephanie Bennett (Julie Benz from Angel and Dexter)

Jim’s wife Stephanie is a high-powered research scientist who feels that “between work and home, there just aren’t enough hours in the day.” So, of course, her superpower is speed. She can run more than 6 miles per second. This magically enables her to begin to find balance in her hectic life: for years, she has been the primary breadwinner for their family, which makes her feel disconnected from her children and mildly resentful of her husband’s closeness to them, as well as his own lack of professional success.

That makes Stephanie sound like a terrible person, but she’s really not. The resentment is incredibly subtle, and Benz makes it clear that Stephanie loves her husband, her children, and her job very much—she just feels stretch too thin, and occasionally it comes out, as in this exchange:

Jim: “Honey, who could keep up with you?”
Stephanie: “You couldn’t, because you stopped trying.”

Some shows—and some actors—would have played that as a scene-ender: one character stomps out of the room while the other leans back against the kitchen cabinet and puts a hand to his/her face in confused chagrin. But this show and these actors push through, because they know that marriage is one long conversation, not a series of emotive two-minute scenes.

The Kids

Well, they actually look like kids, and not over-styled 20-somethings. Daphne was given some great moments to act out her teenage disdain, but was also burdened with an equal amount of ham-fisted emotional exposition. Her superpower is telepathy, which proves (as we probably could have guessed) more of a curse than a power for the average 15 year-old. J.J.’s superpower remains a secret until the last act, so I’ll leave it as a secret here. But you’ll guess it soon enough. I don’t have much to say about this part of the show, although I assume the kiddos will get more screen-time, and better dialogue, in later episodes.

The Buddies

Autumn Reeser (of The O.C.) is Stephanie’s lab assistant. She also has fabulous comedic timing—I don’t understand how she hasn’t become a great comic actress in the tradition of…well. Right: we don’t have great comic actresses in films. At least she’s found a new home on TV.

Romany Malco (of Weeds, which I’ve never seen) is Jim’s assistant DA buddy. He helps with Jim’s new crime-fighting “hobby,” and builds him “what every secret crime fighter needs. A lair. With wi-fi.”

The Plot

Oh, right, the plot! Well, it’s a pilot. We had a sample mini-plot in the form of Jim’s aforementioned crime-fighting hobby, but this first episode was primarily focused on introducing us to the characters, the family, the marriage-as-character, and the rules of superheroism in this universe. There’s a neat twist towards the end that I didn’t see coming, because I simply wasn’t expecting a twist. But I suspect that most episodes will be stand-alones, in which the heroes use their powers to solve problems and realize that love is the greatest power of all.

The Conclusion

It sounds so cheesy, doesn’t it? Sometimes it is. But in places NOF feels like a painting of a family, done in the medium of superpowers instead of oils or acrylics. If Benz and Chiklis stay at the top of their games (and they usually do), and the writers avoid forcing false conclusions of the emotional arcs just to wind-up an episode, this show could be extremely enjoyable.

Will I watch it again? No. My TV schedule is too full as it is, and I don’t expect the narrative to get too complex, or the stakes to be too high. But that just means it’s not for me. This might be just the show for you.

My Superpower is List-Making

• Chiklis mentions that the pilot dies, and he looks genuinely sad about it. Damn, he’s good.

• The security guide told Stephanie to take the 405, because the surface streets were too busy. Today’s life lesson, kiddos: taking the 405 is never the answer, no matter how tempting that sort of self-harming may seem. It is a permanent solution to a temporary problem. Plus, it looked like Stephanie wound up on the 101 anyway.

• Chiklis: “When was the last time we did something as a family?”
Daughter: “Last month. Charades. And you pulled out your back miming some scene from Iron Man.”

• Stephanie: “Jim, I know you want us to have some great family moments. But, we all survived a plane crash. Talk about memories that last forever.”

• Autumn Reeser: “How does your body cut through the wind-shear? Why doesn’t the friction tear your clothes? Are you generating some kind of charged plasma field from the kinetic energy?” Yes, they address the scientific impossibility of Stephanie’s super-speed.

• I haven’t mentioned the film The Incredibles. Oh, I just did.

Pilots are hard to rate. So I’ll just say: if you think you might like this show, you probably will enjoy it. If you think it sounds too cuddly for you, you’re probably right. (And you can watch The Shield instead.)

Josie Kafka is a full-time cat servant and part-time rogue demon hunter. (What's a rogue demon?)

9 comments:

Dimitri A.C. Ly said...

I wasn't going to, but you've convinced me to give this a try, Josie. Great job reviewing something that falls outside your tastes.

"Right: we don’t have great comic actresses in films"

Oh, come now. I like Autumn Reeser too, but the most lucrative genre in cinema is the romantic comedy, which relies heavily on the female lead's ability to convey all the idiosyncrasies women hate in themselves in a charming, comedic way that makes women feel better about themselves, so it stands to reason there are more than a few talented comedic actresses out there, such as, off the top of my head:
Amy Adams, Sandra Bullock, Zooey Deschanel, Tina Fey, Queen Latifah, Laura Linney, Emma Thompson, Reese Whitherspoon, Kristen Wiig; I also think young Selena Gomez is very promising; and Emma Stone just had a breakthrough performance in Easy A.

All this to say, I think women are well represented in comedies (and I couldn't be happier). Oh, and keep in mind I resisted the urge to go into oldies!

Josie Kafka said...

But romantic comedies aren't funny! They have women, sure. But they don't have good jokes.

I've heard great things about Easy A. Emma Thompson is a fabulous example--some of her scenes with Kenneth Branagh in Much Ado About Nothing are hilarious.

Dimitri A.C. Ly said...

That, madam, is a rhetorical sleight of hand, and don't think I didn't notice it!

On the subject of Emma Thompson and Queen Latifah, whom I mentioned earlier, they're both in one of my absolute favourite movies of recent years, Stranger Than Fiction, and they're fabulous.

Oh, and I heartily recommend Easy A as well. Really clever and subversive in a way that's even got a lot of critics fooled.

Josie Kafka said...

I caught yours, too, Dimitri. Good thing we're on the same team, otherwise this could be smack-down time.

:-)

Dimitri A.C. Ly said...

A) No, no, never assume I'm being clever. I'm just prone to logical fallacies and lapses in judgement.

B) Bring it on. I don't remember what we're debating but my superior focus and... Squirrel!

Josie Kafka said...

In case anyone is wondering: you should always assume I'm being clever. Especially if it looks like I'm just being an idiot.

Patryk said...

Don't worry. I always assume you're both clever.

Josie Kafka said...

And gorgeous, of course.

Dimitri A.C. Ly said...

Thanks, Patryk!

I like to think of myself as well drawn.