Tuned In

Test Pilot: No Ordinary Family

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Test Pilot is a semiregular feature sharing my first impressions of the pilots for next fall’s shows. These aren’t reviews, since these pilots can be rewritten, recast and retooled before airing, and the shows that eventually get on the air can prove much better or worse. But premature opinions are why God invented the Internet, so let’s get on with…

The Show: No Ordinary Family, ABC

The Premise: Jim and Stephanie Powell (Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz) and their two teenage kids have been growing apart. What brings a family together? A plane crash. When their small craft ditches into a patch of glowing water in the Amazon River, they emerge safe, and later, each discovers independently that they have superpowers. (That turns out to be the other thing that brings a family together.) This light superfamily-drama looks at how this change in their lives affects the Powells’ relationships with each other and the world, as they try to figure out what their new abilities are, and what responsibilities come with them.

First Impressions: The standard description of this show has become: “It’s a live-action version of The Incredibles.” I would submit that No Ordinary Family is actually the opposite of The Incredibles. The Pixar movie was about a family that had always known superpowers being forced to live as regular folks (then rebelling against the restriction); the TV series is about a family that has always known ordinariness being changed by their powers. But this premise—closer, really, to Heroes’ without the melodramatics—is better suited to serial TV, because it involves the Powells in a long-term process of self-discovery. And while the pilot is nothing new under the sun, it has a good time doing this. We last saw both Chiklis and Benz in dark cable dramas (The Shield and Dexter), but each is convincing in a lighter role, showing genuine glee as middle-aged people discovering what their bodies can do. (Chiklis has lighter work on his resume, but you may have suppressed the memory of Daddio.) I’m a little concerned about Benz’s storyline, which threatens to make her yet another TV mom suffering from too much devotion to her career (also one of the weaker subplots on Parenthood). But the pilot does a good job establishing tone while introducing a complicating twist (which I won’t spoil here) that offers potential as a long-term superhero story arc.

Do I Want to Watch Another Episode? I’m not sure yet if there’s enough to this story to keep me personally coming back weekly. But if the feel-good, Greatest American Hero(es) premise appeals to you—and you don’t expect it to live up to the greatness of The Incredibles—the pilot shows, well, strength.