In "Anna Karenina," Leo Tolstoy famously wrote that while happy families are all alike, the unhappy ones are unhappy each in a special way. But this is not true in television, where unhappy families tend to come in but a few popular flavors.
The Powells of ABC's "No Ordinary Family" — the title is ironic, and then again, it isn't — are a common type: One parent too busy to pay attention, the other wondering where the good times have gone, and kids who hate themselves. And like a lot of unhappy TV families, they are actually a happy family just waiting for the thing that will remind them of that fact.
As does the cartoon movie "The Incredibles," this new series, premiering Tuesday, proposes the exercise of comic-book superpowers as a tonic for domestic malaise. But as this is apparently meant to be a family drama as much as it is an adventure serial — it is co-created by Greg Berlanti, whose CV includes the prime-time soap "Brothers & Sisters," and Jon Harmon Feldman, who also created the supernatural "Tru Calling" – we should assume that it is not a panacea.
Michael Chiklis, late of "The Shield" (and the Thing in "Fantastic Four"), stars as Jim Powell, a man in a funk. Jim, who once thought he'd be an artist, now sketches suspects for the police and dreams of doing something "important" but is constantly reminded of his place: "Why don't you leave the crime fighting to those of us with a gun?" says one detective (a woman too!). A family man whose family has been drifting apart, he forces his protesting teenage daughter and son on vacation to Brazil, where wife Stephanie ( Julie Benz), a distracted corporate research scientist, is investigating a powerful strain of jungle flora. Things for the family go from bored to worse when on a one-hour aerial tour of the rain forest, the weather starts getting rough, their tiny plane is tossed and, notwithstanding the courage of the fearless soon-to-be-late pilot, the Powells crash-land in a strangely phosphorescent lake.
This amazing experience, amazingly, has no discernible emotional effect on the family, who return home as if from a trip to SeaWorld. The kids neither resent their father for nearly killing them nor exploit the social cachet that almost dying in a jungle would surely confer on any teen. Jim goes back to moping and Stephanie goes back to work.
And then, with metaphorical aptness, come the powers. Impotent Jim suddenly can leap tall buildings in a single bound and catch speeding bullets in his bare hand. Stephanie, perennially pressed for time, finds herself moving faster than the speeding bullets Jim can catch. Daughter Daphne ( Kay Panabaker) gains the power to read minds, which was certainly on my want list as a teenager, though she is less than pleased: "I don't want new abilities; high school is hard enough as it is." And son JJ ( Jimmy Bennett), who has a "learning disability," gets really, really smart.
"In the world of science we call it an unexplained phenomenon," scientist Steph says of these unexplained phenomena.
Just what they'll do with all this newfound mojo is hard to say, so packed is the pilot with varying sorts of business and attitudes, the soundtrack obligingly swinging from comic-bright to melancholy-minor, to action-bold. Developments late in the episode suggest that "No Ordinary Family" will look a lot more like "Heroes" than it will, say, "The Adventures of Superman," a course we have seen to be fraught with danger.
Some scenes are not quite thought through (Jim jumping off a skyscraper to see whether he can fly), some of the dialogue too stale to be emotionally convincing. ("I missed … us"), but the show does have possibilities. Still, if it's going to work as a family drama, the characters are going to have to show themselves to be more than just poster children for depression, overwork and teenage anomie. And while the superpowers are well imagined — the scene in which Stephanie discovers her gift of speed is especially pretty — they're going to need an outlet or enemy worth their possessing.
To be continued….