No Ordinary Family, the new hour-long drama airing on ABC at 8 p.m. (Eastern) on Tuesday nights, is indeed something out of the ordinary on primetime network television-a family show that is, for the most part, appropriate for the whole family. Other contenders offer worthy viewing for parents, but not their children (NBC's Parenthood). While yet others make a pretense of being family-friendly but would likely shock parents if they paid attention to what their tweens and teens were absorbing (Fox's increasingly degenerate Glee).
The show takes the premise of Pixar's mega-successful movie, The Incredibles, and sets it in a semi-serious, live-action format. While on a trip to the Amazon, the Powell family's plane crashes into a glowing tributary that leaves each of them with a superhuman ability. Mom Stephanie (Julie Benz) becomes faster than a speeding bullet. Dad Jim (Michael Chiklis) can bend steel, pick up SUVs, and leap tall buildings in a single bound. Sophomore daughter Daphne (Kay Panabaker) reads minds, and freshman son J.J. (Jimmy Bennett) is suddenly a genius who is, amazingly, able to use his new math smarts on the football field.
While the superhero element provides plenty of well-executed action, it's the interplay between family members that viewers will find most engaging. The Powells have relatable enough problems heading into the crash. What's impressive is how the show manages to take each person's new power and use it to amplify and explore those issues.
Before his dip in the phosphorescent water, Jim is a struggling artist who makes his living sketching police suspects. He feels emasculated by the fact that his scientist wife brings home more bacon, and it doesn't help matters that his teenage kids rely more on their iPhones than they do on him. Rather than bestowing newfound confidence, Jim's enhanced strength simply provides him larger-scale ways to deal with his insecurities. In a touching sequence, he hunts down the armed robbers who stole his wife's wedding ring so he can prove he's still her protector.
For moms in the audience, few storylines could be more envy-inspiring than Stephanie's ability to get everything done in half the time. Suddenly she can give 100 percent to work and still has plenty of daylight left to romance hubby, bake muffins, and organize the school carnival, all without guilt that she's letting anyone down (if that's not a superpower, I don't know what is). However, in the midst of this I-Am-Woman activity, we see foreshadowing that even if she can for once do it all, for the sake of her marriage, she maybe shouldn't. The importance No Ordinary Family puts on Jim and Stephanie's relationship is one of the big draws of the show, both in showing their struggles and their closeness. (At one point Stephanie quips, "You're stopping a felony and I'm committing one. Remember when we used to have movie night?")
As with most new series, the first few episodes feel like the scriptwriters and actors are still trying to find their feet. Now and then the dialogue strikes an overly earnest note, and the teens sometimes seem a little more concerned about the comings and goings of mom and dad than is realistic. But thankfully, ABC has ordered a full season, giving producers time to work out the kinks.
The one wrench in the works is the series' occasional use of mildly bad language. "What the hell," is a common exclamation (as it is on virtually every non-news network show), and a couple of other words parents won't want their kids repeating crop up as well. But, perhaps because ABC is figuring out who the program's audience is, these incidents seem to be decreasing in frequency with each episode.
While No Ordinary Family is not yet as riveting as it could be, early plot lines suggest that it may grow into more suspenseful viewing as the series develops. And for those parents longing for a weeknight show they can enjoy with their kids, it's good enough to fill the bill right now.