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Welcome once again to our annual "first look" at the broadcast networks' offerings for the 2010-2011 season. Each day we'll walk you through one of the new series set to premiere next season (or one that didn't make the cut) and go over our initial impressions after viewing the pilot. Keep in mind that a lot can change from what's being screened right now - recasting, reshooting, etc. - but we still want to give you a heads up on what you should (and shouldn't) keep on your radar in the coming months. So enough of our rambling, on with the show!
[IMPORTANT NOTE: The following is based on the original sales presentation which was screened to us privately or supplied by a third party NOT an informational, not-for-review screener provided by the network in question.]
NO ORDINARY FAMILY (ABC)
(written by Greg Berlanti & Jon Harmon Feldman; directed by David Semel; TRT: 44:03)
The network's description: "The Powells are about to go from ordinary to extraordinary. After 16 years of marriage, Jim and Stephanie's relationship lacks the spark it once had, and their family life now consists of balancing work and their two children, leaving little time for family bonding. During a family vacation set up by Jim in an attempt to reconnect, their plane crashes into the Amazon River. But this is where the fun starts for the Powells, as they soon discover that something's not quite right. Each of them now possesses unique and distinct superpowers. But saving and savoring their family life will be equally important, as they try to find purpose for their new powers and embark on a journey to find out what defines and unifies them. The Powells are a totally relatable family who happen to be a little bit amazing."
What did they leave out? Co-stars Tate Donovan and Christina Chang were originally billed as series regulars.
The plot in a nutshell: "Every story has a beginning," family man/police sketch artist Jim Powell (Michael Chiklis) explains. "But ours doesn't start the way you might think." And with that we meet the rest of Jim's relatively normal clan: overworked research scientist wife Stephanie (Julie Benz), blossoming daughter Daphne (Kay Panabaker) and introvert son JJ (Jimmy Bennett). They're loving but disconnected, a facet Jim hopes to cure by having everyone tag along on Stephanie's business trip to Brazil. This of course goes as well as can be expected but after an aerial tour of the Amazon (flown by a blink-and-you'll-miss Tate Donovan) ends with their plane crash landing into the basin, the Powells' lives are changed forever.
Sure enough, they survive and everyone initially resumes their lives like nothing's happened. That all changes however after an incident at the police station, in which Jim is shot by an unruly suspect while trying to protect a detective (Christina Chang). Improbably he emerges without a scratch on him, the bullet having been caught in his hand. It's the first of many fantastical developments, ones which he shares with his best friend/district attorney George (the always great-to-see Romany Malco). Together, after an amusing series of tests, they realize the impossible: Jim has developed "Hulk"-like superpowers. And he's not the only one either.
The rest of the Powells find they too have manifested special abilities: Stephanie develops "Flash"-like super speed, Daphne can read minds and JJ realizes he has an almost computer-like intelligence. They're powers that enable them not to only do amazing things, but to tackle their most pressing issues: Stephanie never has enough time, Daphne is always fearful of what people think and JJ's poor performance at school. More wonderfully, it forces the Powells to try and bond in a way they haven't in years. But it's not all good news: after Jim anoints himself amateur crimefighter, the limitations of his abilities become abundantly clear; while Stephanie's investigation of their powers' origins suggest there's more to their plane crash than they originally thought.
What works: It's so nice to see superpowers portrayed as a blessing and downright fun, instead of the curse they're usually deemed. It's an aspect perfectly embodied by the well-meaning, heart-on-his-sleeve Jim, and to a further extent, Chiklis's wonderful performance. The sequences in which Jim and George, not to mention Stephanie and her research assistant Katie (Autumn Reeser), explore their respective abilities are a flat out joy as it's almost Christmas morning and they're eight-years-old again. Equally as entertaining is how their powers are a catalyst for addressing their familial foibles as for every scene in which Jim leaps from tall buildings in a single bound, there's another in which he crestfallenly kisses his wife goodnight, her having fallen asleep before they had the chance to talk yet again.
It's just a wonderfully ripe show, full of storytelling possibilities both fantastic (are they alone? can they actually fight crime?) and mundane (will Jim and Stephanie be able to work things out? will the kids be able to adjust to their new status quo?), all of which attack the human condition in the metaphoric way television can at its best. A lot of the aforementioned credit goes to director David Semel, who brings an almost feature-esque quality to the proceedings without losing focus on the format's intimacy. Berlanti and Feldman's script likewise just pops, full of life and sparks. And last but certainly not least is its amazing cast, each of which gets their chance to shine.
What doesn't: I must admit, there are times where the superpower-cures-personal-problem aspect becomes a little too on the nose and pat as Daphne, so fearful her boyfriend is cheating on her, just happens to have the ability that provides tangible proof; or JJ, so worried he's the family idiot, conveniently becomes the smartest of them all. There's a fine line between giving characters tools to solve their problems and airdropping easy solutions, so let's hope it's more of the former than the convenient out of the latter. All in all, it hardly dampens my enthusiasm for the show...
The bottom line: ...as this one's most definitely a keeper.