Wishing For A Show Less 'Ordinary'
by Stephanie Earp, posted Sep 28th 2010 3:00AM
'No Ordinary Family' debuts on ABC and CTV tonight, and I will be watching it. I'm not sure I would have bothered, but of all the new fall shows it is the only one to have captured the attention of he-who-shares-my-couch. I'm not bitterly opposed to it -- after all, it features two of my favorite TV actors in the leads: Julie Benz, fresh from her dramatic exit from 'Dexter,' and Michael Chiklis of 'The Shield' (and of giant head). In case you've missed the previews, here's the log line: An average -- nay, "ordinary" -- family go on a trip to South America, where a plane crash gives them a dip in a strange river. They survive the crash and return home to find they all have new super powers -- super speed, super strength, super smarts and the ability to read minds among them.
Sound familiar? Boy, does it ever. Call it a live-action version of 'The Incredibles' or a family-oriented 'Heroes,' but whatever you call it, 'original' probably isn't on the list of adjectives. But this description is just the beginning. From the moment this family discovers its powers, there are really a million ways it could go. But of course, they do exactly what we would expect them to -- they keep it a secret, and use their powers for good -- from fighting crime to spending more time together as a family.
If you think you can predict a few scenes from tomorrow's pilot based only on what I've just told you, you're probably right. You've seen them before. The scenes where they test their abilities, finding out exactly what they're capable of, jumping off roofs and asking friends to shoot them. The scene in the gym -- it's even during a basketball game, just like in 'Buffy' and 'Teen Wolf' -- where a teenage girl discovers, to her dismay, that she's not normal.
Maybe I can give the show a break and say this stuff is an homage to the genre. There are some cute lines referencing 'Superman' and 'X Men,' but I just wish the writers had taken this opportunity to try something new. Maybe the show has to start at the same place that other superhero stories start, but does it have to traverse exactly the same territory? When a genre becomes so entrenched that we recognize the conventions instantly, it's time for someone to come along and shake things up. Think of 'Shaun of the Dead' and how it flipped the zombie genre on its head. Or 'Seinfeld,' which took the conventions of the average sitcom (the one apartment everyone shows up in, the wacky neighbor, the one restaurant everyone eats at) and made them funny again.
What if the writers of this show had pushed themselves to find a new superhero story to tell? Maybe the family would return from the Amazon and immediately go public with the good news about their powers. Maybe they would volunteer to become test subjects. Or maybe they would tell everyone where this magical river is and people would be lining up to jump in it. Maybe one of them would never develop any powers (an idea flirted with in the pilot) and have to live with three super-people all the while knowing they are ordinary. Maybe instead of drawing them closer together, their powers would drive them apart. Maybe their new powers would be too much for them, maybe they'd lose their minds. Or maybe they don't have powers at all, maybe they lost their minds ages ago, and they just believe they have special powers. Or, to stretch it even further, maybe they all actually died in the plane crash and they're living in some alternate reality. Really, the possibilities are endless.
I guess none of those plot ideas would serve ABC's nefarious purposes as well as the one they've got. Clearly, this show is designed to be family-friendly viewing, with enough action to keep adults entertained and enough drama to keep tweens and teens interested. And when a series is designed to do anything other than tell a compelling story, it usually shows.
(For the record, if I suddenly got superpowers, I would use them to travel to exotic places, win high-stakes poker, and beat my boyfriend at sports. Not sure what you guys would do...)
'An Ordinary Family' debuts Tuesday September 28 at 8PM ET/PT on CTV/ABC.