If countless comic books and superhero movies haven’t made it clear enough for you yet: Having super powers can be kind of a drag. Sure, you can impress friends with your newfound ability to juggle cars or cut your commute down to around half-a-second with your super speed. It’s when the inevitable crime-fighting itch kicks in that things head downhill pretty quickly.
ABC’s new superhero series No Ordinary Family follows this formula to a T. Even the show’s story, about a family that becomes superpowered after a freak accident, cribs heavily from Pixar’s The Incredibles and the lore of the Fantastic Four. But none of that seems to matter much when watching a show that somehow manages to make a main character with Mr. Incredible’s powers being played by the actor who portrayed The Thing in the Fantastic Four movies actually seem kind of cheeky rather than uninspired. Clearly uninterested in the daunting task of expanding the superhero genre to great new heights, No Ordinary Family manages to take an oversaturated genre and mold it into a flawed but ultimately fun piece of family-friendly fluff.
Michael Chiklis plays Jim, the sad-eyed leader of the Powell clan, a dysfunctional family that’s dealing with an overworked mother (Julie Benz), a daughter (Kay Panabaker) who’s folding under the pressures of climbing the high school social ladder, and a son (Jimmy Bennett) who’s just kind of dumb. Determined to keep his family from dissolving in front of his eyes, Jim books a surprise trip to South America, where the four of them are caught in a plane crash that lands them in a river filled with magical, superpowered plankton—or something like that (answers to that little mystery are no doubt pending). Like I said, it’s not exactly groundbreaking material, but the show works it with such a flighty sense of adventure that dwelling on its stale premise seems kind of cynical.
No Ordinary Family‘s pilot episode is at its best when the Powell family begins to discover their powers. Chiklis and Benz both seem thrilled to be playing lighter characters than they have in the past—especially Benz, whose turn as Rita in Dexter devolved into being quite the shrieking nag before the series generously relieved us of her. Both actors sell their new powers with the right blend of joy and confusion, with wife Stephanie just as eager to show off her new speed as her husband, who spends most of the episode parading his bullet-catching skills and ability to leap tall buildings in a single bound—a phrase he insists on using.
If the adults steal the show in No Ordinary Family, it’s the angsty Powell teens that act as the wet blanket. Sucking the joy out of every scene, they’re the kind of modern children that TV loves to ridicule, a perpetually unimpressed brood whose attention is permanently drawn to cellphones or handheld video games. Even their parents getting superpowers isn’t enough to break them from their solipsist stupor. You’d think Dad’s ability to snatch bullets from the air or Mom being able to outpace a jet would be enough to forget about boy troubles or shitty grades for at least half a second.
To be fair, the kids do get rather shafted on the super-power front. Daughter Daphne’s telepathy only leads her to discover how little she’s liked and respected at school, while son JJ becomes really good at math, a superpower that recalls Cypher, the lamest X-Person. Even if their very own superpowers aren’t enough to ease their sniveling issues and whining, their issues are the stuff of weepy, overwrought CW dramas. It drags the show down, constantly forcing it to shift from light family adventure to drab family drama.
It’s difficult to predict where No Ordinary Family will go from here. The pilot offers up the promising and the bland in about equal measure. With its accomplished adult cast, and writers from Chuck and Smallville, the show could go on to make for a pretty fun adventure series, but the looming threat of boring teenage gloom and the hints of a convoluted plot involving Stephanie Powell’s sinister employer could sink whatever potential there is.