Meet the Real-Life Incredibles
No Ordinary Family leaves no cliche unbounded.
Though No Ordinary Family (ABC, Tuesdays at 8 p.m. ET) bears many hallmarks of an interesting failure, it falls slightly short of the distinction on account of its resistance to being consistently interesting. The giddy fun of its concept—a superhero drama addressing the tensions of home life—is at odds with its by-the-numbers simpering about those tensions and its eager reliance on a litany of prehistoric dramatic devices. It's a bird. It's a plane. It's an amalgam of shopworn tropes adorned in a flapping cape.
Meet the Powells, a family of four living handsomely in southern California. Their kitchen is vast even by the standard of network television, where the center island in the average home is large enough to rate, geographically, as a cay. Like most every set here, it is drenched in a white-gold light glow so intense as to wash out the dramatic tone and so constant that I briefly thought mom and dad were pouring red wine for breakfast. What's cooking is domestic dissatisfaction, everyday frustration, and inchoate longing. "We were all living under the same roof but in different worlds," the dad says, offering himself to the viewer in brotherhood.
The mother, Stephanie (Julie Benz), is the guilt-ridden careerist in the house, a fancy research scientist in the private sector. (Oddly, we see a sneering colleague deride her presentation on the lucrative possibilities of some Amazonian flora—"You're wasting the board's time on a plant?"—as if none of us had never heard of the commercial potential of rubber trees or opium poppies or organic mixed greens.) The dad, Jim (Michael Chiklis), is the beta parent and accordingly mopes around like an overmuscled bulldog. Jim has shelved his artistic ambitions in favor of working as a police sketch artist and trying to spend more time with kids who've got much better things to do than to have time spent with them.
Their son is a mouthy little sulker named J.J. (Jimmy Bennett). Jim and Stephanie are just getting around to sorting out whether he suffers a clinically recognized learning disability or is rather a normal kid whose dullardry is too prosaic to command the interest of science. (The boy presents symptoms of a disorder afflicting many fictional teenage males: Devoting all of his intellectual resources to emitting wiseass one-liners that highlight his sullenness and apathy, he comes across as sullen and apathetic.)
Meanwhile, their daughter, Daphne (Kay Panabaker), is bright, motivated, and virtuous. The only problem with her is that she is also a teenager. To characterize the girl's rapt self-absorption and excited alienation from the family unit, No Ordinary Family lengthily resorts to the shorthand of having Daphne's pupils and thumbs forever fixed to her mobile device. The laziness of this literal device only warrants comment because pretending to send text messages is not the strong suit of the actress in the role. She puts an unpersuasive excess of force into tapping out those OMGs, using body English better suited to playing pinball.
In an attempt to snatch some quality time from the all-crushing jaws of contemporary existence, Jim and the kids tag along with Stephanie on a business trip to Brazil. There, they survive the emergency water landing of a small airplane—a precipitating event that No Ordinary Family is in an inexplicable rush to dispense with. The emotional impact of the accident is not correctly calibrated for either fantasy or drama, the genres the show uneasily straddles. Given the way that the Powells brush off this vacation mishap, you might suppose that they had merely blown a fan belt on the way back from the Grand Canyon, rather than breaststroked through florescent waters that (it turns out) endowed them with superpowers.
Jim is the first to realize his new gifts when, during a fracas down at the station, he snatches a bullet from the air. Subsequent experiments, detailed in engaging special effects, prove that his body can survive leaps to rooftops and plunges to the pavement. (It is far more bothersome here than it would be in a piece of straight-up escapism that he never frays a cuff or scuffs a jacket when skidding across concrete. One does not look to a show about superheroes for realism, but irrealism needs to be in the right key.) Jim's powers enable him to take up a hobby in vigilante justice. Now a man of steel, he can finally be a man.
A bit later, Stephanie discovers that she's been endowed with Flash-like superspeed; in a development so thematically tidy that it qualifies as a matter of compulsive neatness, this mom-on-the-go can all at once go very fast. Daphne, for her part, realizes that she is able to read minds with the immediate result that she kicks a cheating boyfriend to the curb. This is not a terribly impressive feat—it is evident at a glance that the guy is a smirking weasel—but it's a decent start. And as for J.J.? The revelation of his gifts receives the least amount of screen time, so perhaps there are further intricacies in store, but the big idea is that all of the sudden he knows how to do math. Looking at a blackboard, he sees a parabola glow and seems to understand it. Watching No Ordinary Family, I said, "Holy psychobabble!" and experienced a like feeling of comprehension. The show presents superheroism as a route to self-actualization.
Troy Patterson is Slate's television critic.
Still from No Ordinary Family by Adam Larkey/ABC © 2010. All rights reserved.