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A "Modern Family" of "Heroes" that Lives in "Smallville"

By Dustin Rowles | TV | September 28, 2010 |

By Dustin Rowles | TV | September 28, 2010 |

Comparisons to both “Heroes” and “Smallville” are apt for ABC’s superhero dramedy, “No Ordinary Family” (debuting tonight at 8 pm EST), but it also seems to want very badly to be “Modern Family,” with superpowers. On paper, the combination of “Heroes” and “Modern Family,” should put “No Ordinary Family,” on par with The Incredibles, but it also depends on who’s writing on that paper. Greg Berlanti is no Brad Bird, He’s a writer of decent but overlooked television shows (“Eli Stone,” “Everwood,”) and, more recently, he wrote the scripts for The Green Lantern and The Flash. “No Ordinary Family,” fits somewhere in between, and as of yet, gives us no real sense of what his The Green Lantern might be like, except that it will most certainly hit a seven on the idiomatic expression meter.

A good show can survive the occasionally clunky dialogue, however (see “Fringe,” for a recent example), as long as the characters work. It’s too early to tell after the pilot episode of “No Ordinary Family,” as it merely provided the origins of those characters, but it has promise, thanks mostly to a strong cast that brings with it some emotional residue from previous series.

Michael Chiklis (“The Shield,” Fantastic Four) anchors that cast. He’s Jim Powell, police sketch artist and insecure father given to ruminating about the past, a time when the rest of his family had more time together. That family includes Stephanie (“Dexter’s” Julie Benz, doing her best Julie Bowen impression), the executive vice-president of a research lab; Daphne (Kay Panabaker), the bratty teenage daughter with boy issues; and JJ (Jimmy Bennett), the sullen, learning-disabled son.

They are initially a pale imitation of “Modern Family’s” Dunphys, up and until their plane crashes into a phosphorescent Amazon lake while on an aerial tour during a family vacation to Brazil. They survive the crash (though, the pilot does not), and they return to their normal, ordinary lives.

That is, of course, until they slowly begin to realize that they somehow acquired superpowers during the crash. Suddenly, Jim — who is always being put in his place at the police station by those allowed to carry guns — can catch bullets, jump a quarter of a mile, and remain virtually indestructible. Meanwhile, Stephanie — who was alway short on time — finds that she can run, really fast. Like, a six-second mile. Daphne can read minds, which is not actually that ideal for a teenage girl already dealing with insecurities. Finally, the learning disabled JJ discovers that he has a superhero affinity for … math.I guess you never know when long division will come in handy when trying to take down a bad guy.

The superpowers, of course, remain a secret, but for two other people brought in on it. Jim’s best friend, George (Romany Malco), helps him to realize his powers’ full potential (and, so far, is the best character in the show), while Autumn Reeser’s (“The O.C.”) Katie — Stephanie’s lab assistant — is enrolled to record Stephanie’s speed with a stopwatch. I’m guessing she’ll be further developed in subsequent episodes.

Given all that’s going on in the pilot episode, there’s barely enough time to develop an antagonist, and the super-villain in the opening episode is given short shrift, which is excusable given the time limitations. Moreover, the potential promise of “No Ordinary Family,” won’t be determined until further episodes, as we discover whether Berlanti attempts to develop some mythology (and we can hope it doesn’t get as muddled as “Heroes”) or if it ops for villain-of-the-week episodes, like early seasons of “Smalliville.” Personally, I’d prefer that the scope remains small in scale, and focuses primarily on how these superpowers affect the family dynamics. So far, that’s been the better part of the show, watching this “ordinary family” come to terms with their extraordinary powers.

It is most assuredly worth a three-or-four episode commitment, just to see how it plays out in the coming weeks. What it does not need, and what it’s already hinting at, is a series of criminals with similar superpowers, threatening to embiggen the scale of the show beyond its limitations. However, if it can remain intimate, find a solid center, play up the pathos, downplay the potential crime-fighting implications, and smooth over the dialogue (not to mention, excise the documentary-style confessionals), it could definitely work, and in a pilot season that’s already been riddled with disappointment, “No Ordinary Family,” could be a potential break-out hit.