ABC's 'No Ordinary Family': Cheesy but fun action superhero drama

The family drama follows the Powells, a typical suburban family that goes from ordinary to extraordinary after their plane crashes into the Amazon River while on a family trip. While they walk away unharmed, the family soon discovers they've mysteriously acquired super powers. "No Ordinary Family" premieres Sept. 28 at 8 p.m. ET.
By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Tuesday, September 28, 2010

As metaphors go, you can almost glean some current significance from "No Ordinary Family," ABC's cheesy but likable new live-action superhero drama, which premieres Tuesday night.

Ever since there was a television to look at, we've been fruitlessly searching for cues from fictional TV families about how to enliven our own households. Long ago, the answer was always magic powers: Marry a witch. House a Martian. Hire outspoken people of other races or ethnicities to be your domestic help (they were always superhilarious).

Well, magic -- in the form of superpowers -- is the magic answer again. The family that deflects bullets together stays together, and if by any chance you're thinking that this show sounds a bit like Pixar's 2004 animated box-office hit "The Incredibles," well, you aren't wrong. Nary a word in "No Ordinary Family's" credits acknowledges this inspirational debt, but maybe it doesn't matter, since Disney pulls all these strings anyhow.

The Powells seem to have it pretty good before superpowers. There are nice cars, a big suburban house, two teenagers schizzed out on text-messaging.

But this is recession-weary, hero-hungry America, so naturally the Powells are at first seen as filled with a sense of displaced ennui, even if their bank account looks just fine. In a cliche narrative device, Jim and Stephanie Powell describe their familial disconnect to a marriage counselor, which is to say, the camera. (TV actors of America, I beg you: Stand up for your rights to not look at the camera.)

Jim (Michael Chiklis, of "The Shield" and "Fantastic Four") is a frustrated artist, working part time at the police station, drawing sketches of suspects. His wife, Stephanie (Julie Benz), is the breadwinner, a top scientist at a research firm, beholden to her BlackBerry. The kids -- oh, I don't even know what to say about the kids. Central Casting sent them over. They mumble; they're moody. The girl is all bratuous indignation; the boy has a slight case of the Bieberbangs.

Off to vacation: Mom has sciencey business in Brazil, which Jim decides is a good opportunity for some togetherness. But then their chartered plane crashes in the Amazon River on a stormy night (killing the pilot). The Powells survive and are doused in some ethereally magic algae.

When they get home, they begin to realize that they've acquired unique powers. Mom is able to run 600 miles an hour; Dad is bulletproof and able to jump really far. But while the adults discover some new vigor in the master bedroom, there's unhappiness down the hall. The daughter (Kay Panabaker as Daphne) can read minds and greets this news with the usual teen totalitarian reaction to change: "I don't want new abilities. High school is hard enough as it is!!" You'll have to watch to find out what the son (Jimmy Bennett as J.J.) can do.

"No Ordinary Family" tries to locate a sweet spot enjoyed by recent superheroic dramas that specialize in more verisimilitude than spandex, such as "Smallville" and "Heroes." Shows like those lean more toward seriousness and away from the colorfully ridiculous old comic books. Although this often strikes non-fanboys and non-fangirls as woefully atonal, it mostly works here, but it would be nice if "No Ordinary Family" had more humor about it.

All too quickly, the Powells seem destined to battle empowered bad guys who've also found the Amazon's transformative waters. Meantime, a friend from the police station has hooked Jim up with "a secret lair" (a garage man-cave, basically, with all that Best Buy has to offer), from which Jim can monitor potential ne'er-do-wells and leap off to the rescue.

Yet the best part of the pilot episode comes while watching the Powells discover, and attempt to sublimate, their powers. I know superheroes have noblesse oblige written into their pact with society, mostly to appease the laws of comic-bookdom. The potential viewers for these shows tend to adamantly demand that superheroes fulfill superhero plots, usually above crowded metropolitan streets. The more CGI, the better.

But why must the "real-life" superhero story adhere to that demand for special effects, archenemies, laboratories and dark alleys? I'd be more content to watch the Powells figure out ways to help the middle class, defy recessionary economics and kick The Man in the pants. Turns out they're too white bread for that.

No Ordinary Family

(one hour) premieres Tuesday at 8 p.m. on ABC.

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