Last night's No Ordinary Family was basically two separate episodes. One episode was another reasonably enjoyable hour of brainless entertainment. The other episode was a painfully stupid examination of gender politics with some vaguely sexist overtones. Let's just say I had two very different reactions to this episode, shall we?
The story of "No Ordinary Double Standard" is simple enough. Stephanie's friend, Dr. Lena Hopkins, is attacked in her home by a mystery assailant. Jim and Stephanie both want to solve the case, and they get into an inane argument about who is better suited to fight crime and whether Jim has a gender-based double standard. (Hence the title.) This is thrown into high relief when Jim forbids Daphne from dating a senior, while letting the even younger J.J. go out with one. Daphne ultimately defies her dad and goes out with her juvenile delinquent paramour, and in the process she learns that she can actually alter people's thoughts as well as simply read them.
Meanwhile, after some wacky, very stupid hijinks, Jim and Stephanie discover the attacker is a fellow super played by a now shockingly thin Ethan Suplee. He's able to turn himself into mist, and it turns out he's the product of some prison experiments performed by Lena and Stephanie's boss, the evil Dr. King. We learn some of the larger mythology stuff, Jim and Stephanie save Dr. King from the smoke monster dude, and they learn a valuable lesson about gender roles. Or something. Also, Dr. King now knows they have powers.
There's a lot - and I mean a lot - to dislike about "No Ordinary Double Standard", and I'll get to that in a moment. But I will say this - No Ordinary Family has gotten decently good at brainless entertainment, and this episode was certainly brainless. There is some good stuff here: Romany Malco, Autumn Reeser, and Kay Panabaker all continue to give performances that are way better than the material deserves - in particular, Panabaker's delivery of the line "Are you whistling? Who does that?" turned a nothing line into my favorite gag of the night. I doubt anyone is noticing, but Daphne is actually one of the best depictions of a high schooler I've seen in a long time, and Kay Panabaker deserves pretty much all of the credit for that.
And, if you're willing to look at the whole thing as some sort of incredibly stupid, so-bad-it's-good live-action cartoon, then yeah, this episode was pretty enjoyable. That's right - No Ordinary Family has now reached the same level of quality as The Cape. I'd mention all the stuff this episode did to deepen the show's mythology, but at this point, there's absolutely no reason to think the next episode will follow through on any of this serialization. Hell, this episode wimped out on a game-changing cliffhanger that it set up earlier in the episode. So yeah, I'm tabling any mythology/serialization talk until there's any reason to think the show is taking it at all seriously.
But none of this speaks to the real problem with this episode. I'll be honest - I was dreading "No Ordinary Double Standard" as soon as I heard the title. It's not that I've got anything against shows tackling gender relations...it's just that 99.9% of the time, TV shows that try to tackle this subject matter end up being either preachy and didactic or reactionary and vaguely sexist. This is a topic that has proven too tough for some legitimately great shows, so what the hell kind of chance did No Ordinary Family have?
This is a show that, at its best, offers some light, escapist entertainment with a knack for occasionally seeming cleverer than it really is. I'm not entirely sure this show is well-built to handle anything, but it sure as hell isn't built to handle weighty, complex subject matter. And, on that score, "No Ordinary Double Standard" was just about as bad as I expected.
Jim and Stephanie become stupid, weirdly sexist caricatures of themselves, where any nuance their characters once had gets thrown out in order to serve the hackneyed gender dichotomy. Jim in particular comes off like a huge asshole in this episode, which is a shame considering his fundamental decency has been a key part of whatever backbone this show has had.
But it's not just the characterizations, as we're also subjected to some horribly icky moments - hell, even that promo photo up top is pretty awful, and that was actually the least horrendous of the bunch. The scene where Stephanie gets violated in the shower is so wrong on so many levels, and it feels particularly appalling in an episode that's trying to make some fuzzy point about gender roles.
Here's the thing though - since I expected all this going in, I kinda just wrote it off as an extended version of the usual No Ordinary Family stupidity, and started looking at what the rest of the episode had to offer. And, to my surprise, a lot of the rest of the episode was pretty decent. Yeah, I know - it's not exactly a ringing endorsement to say, "If you can look past the casual sexism, it's actually not all that bad." In fact, I feel a little wrong even saying that much. But hey, that's the point we've reached with No Ordinary Family. Take it or leave it, I guess, and the next episode will probably be something completely different anyway.