With Heroes off the air, ABC hopes to sate your appetite for superpowered television with No Ordinary Family, about a family of newly-minted superheroes. But this live-action Incredibles may find its origin story is its own greatest foe.
Granted, the show's writers had to pack a lot into the 44-minute pilot episode ABC showed this weekend. We have to meet the Powell family: Stephanie (Julie Benz), an overworked research scientist, Jim (Michael Chiklis), a police sketch artist frustrated that he hasn't accomplished more in his life, their self-involved daughter Daphne, and learning-disabled son JJ. We have to see where Stephanie and Jim work. Ancillary characters — including Romany Malco as Jim's lawyer friend George and Autumn Reeser as Stephanie's Kitty Pryde-loving assistant Katie — need to be established. We have to witness the plane crash that gives the Powells their powers, and we have to see those powers emerge. Plus, Jim Powell has to take on a bad guy to establish his role as a fledgling superhero. And we need the big reveal that the Powell's aren't the only ones with superpowers.
It's a lot to pack in to a single episode, and it means the pilot for No Oridnary Family contains little more than exposition. Benz and Chiklis narrate several scenes in voice-over, and most of the conversations serve as backstory info dumps. We know that Jim feels that he's never done anything significant with his life because he tells us. We know that Stephanie resents him while she works 80 hours a week because she tells him. We know that Stephanie is disconnected from her children because Jim tells her. It all leaves little room for texture or for the cast to show off their acting chops. Creator Greg Berlanti and the show's producers repeatedly described the show as "Parenthood with superpowers," but the pilot could use a bit more of Parenthood's character development and a bit less of Jim and Stephanie testing the limits of their powers and explicitly telling the audience how terrible their lives are.
Berlanti said that No Ordinary Family hopes to avoid the pitfalls of recently-cancelled Heroes by focusing on standalone episodes rather than multi-episode arcs. So it's entirely possible that the pilot suffers so much because of the pressure to crunch so much information into a single episode. But even with the focus on standalone episodes, there is some plot advancement ahead. There are hints that the chemical research company Stephanie works for is somehow linked to the Powell's powers, and the producers said that one of the non-Powell characters we meet in the pilot will be revealed to have superpowers in a later episode (the character knows he or she has powers, but the Powells don't). They also announced that the Powells will find a nemesis in a character who doesn't have any superpowers.
It's also possible that we will ultimately see a somewhat different pilot for No Ordinary Family; the producers said that the panel version isn't necessarily the final version. And it may take a few episodes for the show to find its voice. But there's little in the pilot to suggest that No Ordinary Family will be our new superhero destination.