No Ordinary Family might just be the one superhero drama that's worth watching

Yesterday's No Ordinary Family wasn't perfect, but it was a huge improvement on the shaky pilot. It offered the same fun superhero antics along with a slightly more nuanced take on family life. Plus hints of a bigger, darker mythology.

I liked "No Ordinary Marriage" a lot more than I did last week's pilot. I gave the pilot a pretty hard time for its problems - mostly a whole lot of cliched and obvious storytelling - while recognizing there were signs this show could dramatically improve. This episode doesn't entirely fix the problems of the pilot, but it does turn down the volume on them significantly. I would have had a hard time recommending No Ordinary Family based just on the pilot, but this... well, now we're getting somewhere.

The episode mostly focuses on the Powell family continuing to deal with their new powers. Jim and Stephanie both get a pretty harsh lesson in the downside of their powers when they're involved in some rather unusual "car crashes." They promise each other to not use their powers until they understand what's going on. Of course, these promises prove difficult to keep, as George won't accept Jim's decision to give up crime-fighting, while Stephanie realizes her best chance to discover the truth will require her to use her abilities.

No Ordinary Family might just be the one superhero drama that's worth watching

Meanwhile, the kids are having almost precisely opposite problems with their powers. For JJ, his power of super-intelligence is the best thing that's ever happened, at least until his math teacher suspects he's cheating on his math tests. For Daphne, her mind-reading makes her life a living hell, where her every waking moment is drowned in the mental angst of everyone around her.

Everything about this episode felt more deftly handled than what we saw in the pilot. The family, superhero, and larger mystery plotlines were nicely intertwined, as Jim's crimefighting and Stephanie's search for the truth led to some difficult decisions back home. The kids were rather more likable in this episode, and Kay Panabaker in particular is doing a good job capturing the angst of a teenager (particularly a telepathic one) without being completely irritating.

The main thing that still bothers me about this show is that everything is so on the nose. It wasn't as blatant as in the pilot, when everyone made a big speech to explain what they were thinking in the clearest possible terms (and then rehashed those basic points a few more times, just to be sure), but this is still the sort of show where the neighboring family can't just be a couple of mildly passive-aggressive assholes, they have to be THE BIGGEST ASSHOLES ON THE PLANET. It's not that these people don't exist - Hell, I've lived in the suburbs long enough to know some of them personally - but I'd like to see a little more character nuance from my superhero dramas. Is that so much to ask? (Don't answer that.)

No Ordinary Family might just be the one superhero drama that's worth watching

The show also needs to find more of a sense of humor. Right now, the comic relief is being handled almost entirely by resident sassy sidekicks Romany Malco and Autumn Reeser, with maybe the occasional wry one-liner from Michael Chiklis. The problem is, a lot of this show is faintly ludicrous - I have a hard time taking the shots of Julie Benz running completely seriously - and it would do itself a favor if it could occasionally admit how vaguely silly this all is instead of another deadly serious conversation about what their powers mean. It's getting closer to this, with things like Stephanie's quickie muffin feast, but everything the show did well in this episode, it could stand do a whole lot more.

But really, probably the most exciting part of this episode was Josh Stewart as the evil superpowered thug, who IMDB says is the Watcher. (And no, not that Watcher.) I doubt his big encounter with the Powells will happen anytime soon, but it's heartening to know this show isn't afraid to add some menace and go to some dark places. Seriously, I think we can officially say this is not a kid's show when it ends with the (apparent) brutal murder of a cop. Although it breaks my heart to find out Stephen Collins is really Evil Stephen Collins, as he will henceforward be known.

If the show never gets any better than this episode, it would still be a decent enough little show, certainly better than most other attempts to do superheroes on TV. But this episode also flashed enough promise of future improvement and suggested enough bigger mysteries that I doubt this show is staying where it is. It's either going to take a big leap (sorry, sorry...bound) and become legitimately good...or it's going to be a massive disappointment that can never live up to is potential. (You know...like most other attempts to do superheroes on TV.) So which will it be? I'm not sure, but I'm definitely looking forward to next week's episode to start finding out.