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No Ordinary Family Is No Ordinary Show

By Edited Nov 20, 2015 0 0

Watching TV together is a family pastime that goes back to my childhood, and one of the first series I can remember watching on a regular basis was The Commish, which starred Michael Chiklis as Tony Scali, a schlubby police commissioner who juggles work and family and must often find unconventional solutions to the problems that plague his small town. I loved his work on that show - as well as in The Fantastic Four movies, in which he plays The Thing - and I was excited to see that he would be at the heart of No Ordinary Family, the series that debuted on ABC on September 28.

No Ordinary Family has been touted by many as a sort of live-action version of The Incredibles, and that's not a bad comparison. The dynamics of the family are pretty similar. Chiklis plays Jim Powell, the father who makes a living as a sketch artist working for the police department. Full of middle-aged malaise, he bemoans the fact that the family that is the center of his world has drifted away from him. His wife Stephanie (Julie Benz) is a go-getter who never has time to spare, while his children have reached the rebellious teenage phase. Daphne (Kay Panabaker) is a snotty smart-aleck wrestling with immense interpersonal pressures, while JJ (Jimmy Bennett, who played the young James T. Kirk in J. J. Abrams' recent Star Trek reboot) sulks because he struggles so much with his schoolwork. Gone are the tranquil days of family football games and pizza nights. This quartet is falling apart.

That's why, when Stephanie's job takes her on a trip to the Amazon, Jim suggests that they all go, making it a family vacation. He hopes that the time together in a remote area will help to reforge those loosening bonds; he has no idea how profound a bond they are about to share. Their small plane goes down in the jungle, and although they survive, upon their return to civilization, each of them begins to notice that something has changed...

Each member of the family receives a distinct superpower appropriate to his or her unique situation. For Jim, the cornerstone of the family, that means extraordinary strength and reflexes. Stephanie's super speed is the perfect complement to her fast-paced lifestyle, while Daphne's telepathy gives her a unique advantage in navigating the pitfalls of high school politics. At first, it seems as though JJ has been left out of the party, but the young man whose learning disabilities have always left him frustrated now finds himself understanding the intricacies of complex mathematics.

So far, JJ is the least developed of the main four, but there's plenty of room for the show, created by Greg Berlanti and Jon Harmon Feldman, to delve into his personality. Panabaker, who looks very much like the ill-fated Joan of Arcadia's Amber Tamblyn, has a mouth that could use a few soap suds, and some of her crude backtalk made me roll my eyes, as did her constant texting. But once we get to know her a little better, we understand that all the sass masks vulnerability, and she worries about losing her boyfriend - especially since, for all her worldly facade, she has no interest in losing her virginity just yet. I found this rather refreshing to hear, and ABC reinforced the message the following night when Modern Family's 13-year-old Alex decided that she wanted to wait for a deeper relationship before experiencing her first kiss.

Stephanie is appealing, if a bit hard to keep up with. She, too, faces pressures, and I'm especially curious to see how the dynamic between her and her boss, played by Seventh Heaven's Stephen Collins, develops. She has a chirpy confidante in lab tech Katie Andrews (Autumn Reese), who isn't yet a close friend but seems poised to be. She and Jim switch off on narrating the episode in a format that recalls the confessional style of The Office and Modern Family but tweaks the formula. I wouldn't be surprised to see the kids chiming in on this in later episodes.

But Jim really is the center of the show, and Chiklis, who rocks a bald 'do as effectively as Celtic Thunder's magnificent George Donaldson, brings a wonderful blend of warmth, melancholy and humor to the role. It helps that we already have the makings of one of the best bromances on TV in his friendship with attorney George St. Cloud, exuberantly played by Romany Malco, one of the key players in the raunchy but sweet The 40-Year-Old Virgin. Most of the biggest laughs of the episode come from the interaction between these old chums, and there's a definite joy of discovery as they learn together exactly what Jim can and can't do and conspire to battle crime with the aid of the high-tech lair George sets up. It's clear that George will be an integral part of this this super-family despite not having any unusual abilities himself.

My biggest complaint with most of the supernaturally-tinged dramas that have come out in recent years, from Heroes to Flashforward and V, is that they're all so dark. No Ordinary Family is wonderfully light-hearted, while the soul of the show is this little family struggling to make it through the treacherous teenage years. In many ways, the first episode reminded me of the early days of Smallville, when Clark is just figuring out his powers and hasn't quite honed them yet. Blake Neely's epic score strengthened the association.

These four have a lot of honing to do, and that will inevitably allow for many amusing moments in the weeks to come. I have no doubt that the series will be given that time to spread its wings, because this is a wonderfully-written pilot that hit all the right notes, and it's got the force of some pretty impressive actors to increase the momentum. Of all the new series I've seen this year, No Ordinary Family is far and away my favorite. In other words, it's No Ordinary Show.



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