“No Ordinary Family” tries to be a couple different things in its premiere episode: a show about a family that’s come undone and a superhero origin story. One works better than the other, but there’s potential for a pretty strong, all-ages-welcome series in there.
The ABC show, which premieres at 8 p.m. ET Tuesday (Sept. 28), has a seriously fun vibe as the family — and particularly parents Jim (Michael Chiklis) and Stephanie Powell (Julie Benz) — figures out their new powers. The family-drama portion of the show feels a little (occasionally a lot) less fully formed than that, but as a way into the hero stuff, it’s at least a slightly different approach than other TV series (we’re looking at you, “Heroes”) have taken.
Jim, a police sketch artist, is worried that his family is drifting apart, so he insists that he and his teenage kids (Kay Panabaker and Jimmy Bennett) join his scientist wife on a research trip to Brazil, where he then insists they take a plane ride over the rainforest. Their plane crashes, they all survive (though the pilot, played by suspiciously well-known guest star Tate Donovan, does not), and they return home shaken but no different. Or so they think.
Jim soon discovers that he has incredible strength and amazing reflexes, while Stephanie finds out that she now possesses super-speed. The “why” is flimsy (and not the most important detail), but watching them test out their new abilities is a blast. After catching a bullet during an incident at the precinct, Jim then takes to the local batting cage to catch fastballs and enlists his prosecutor buddy (Romany Malco of “Weeds”) in conducting further experiments.
Stephanie, meanwhile, lets her lab assistant (Autumn Reeser, “The O.C.”) in on her secret and sets about scientifically testing the limits of her new power. Reeser’s character raises some very plausible questions (like why her clothes don’t shred), and both she and Malco are pretty much perfectly cast in their roles as budding sidekicks. They’re genuinely excited by what their friends can do, and the enthusiasm is infectious.
Like Jim (who was feeling ineffectual and weak before the crash) and Stephanie (who never had enough time in her day), daughter Daphne (Panabaker) also receives a thematically apt power: She starts reading other people’s minds — and as much as she previously wondered what her boyfriend and others were thinking about her, she’s not happy when she actually finds out. Son JJ (Bennett) feels left out because he doesn’t come back from Brazil with anything new (at least not at first).
There’s a good bit of dialogue in the premiere to the effect of “We’re a family — we’ll get through this together,” but it’s not terribly convincing. Creators Jon Harmon Feldman (“Dirty Sexy Money,” “Big Shots”) and Greg Berlanti (“Brothers & Sisters,” “Everwood”) haven’t figured out how to knit the two halves of the show together yet, in part because Jim and Stephanie are so often out doing their hero stuff that they don’t have much time to be parents. Presumably once the audience gets through the setup of the pilot episode, that balance can shift a little bit.
(There’s also what appears to be a fake-documentary device throughout much of the pilot, with Jim and Stephanie relating their story to someone off-screen. Thankfully, it turns out not to be the case, although it still sometimes feels like the show is telling when it should be showing.)
Chiklis (“The Shield,” “Fantastic Four”) and Benz (“Dexter”) are appealing leads, and “No Ordinary Family” will most likely rise and fall on their backs. Berlanti, who co-wrote the forthcoming “Green Lantern” feature, and Feldman are not shy about superhero references in the pilot — the most obvious one being “The Incredibles,” which seems like a blueprint for the series — and their joy in telling the story tends to overcome the weak spots.
At least for now. We’re hoping to see “No Ordinary Family” become a whole that’s greater than its parts in the coming weeks.
Photo credit: ABC