Comic-Con Screening: ABC's 'No Ordinary Family'
Michael Chiklis and Julie Benz greet their Comic-Con fans
As I was filing out of today’s Comic-Con screening of "No Ordinary Family," I passed by a mother with her young daughter in tow. The overly-excited girl was obviously impeding her mother’s progress through the sea of people, but she was far too immersed in her love of ABC’s new family-action mash-up show to notice. "That was sooo good!" she yelled, before planting her feet and demanding to know, "When does it start?" Their movement ground to a halt until a passerby was kind enough to remind them of the September 28 start date and the girl was content enough to continue making her way out of the ballroom.
My own enthusiasm for the pilot pales in comparison to the young girl’s, but I’m nonetheless impressed by any show that can have that much family appeal while starring two actors who just finished their turns on "Dexter" and "The Shield" (next up: James Gandolfini and Ian McShane resurrecting the TGIF family comedy!) The change of pace may just be an inspired idea, as clearly ABC is counting on the acting chops of their two leads, Julie Benz and Michael Chiklis, to keep parents tuned in as well.
When asked, during the panel’s Q&A session, if he was specifically looking for something lighter after starring as "The Shield’s dirty cop Vic Mackey, Chiklis responded that he was simply looking for something "new," and rather than being drawn in by the lightness of the project, he was genuinely intrigued by the idea of "family drama wrapped in the world of the super-hero genre."
Chiklis stars as family man and police sketch artist Jim Powell, who finds himself drifting apart from his brilliant, workaholic wife Stephanie, and their two teenaged children JJ and Daphne. As a remedy, he takes the family on a trip to Brazil, where a plane crash submerses them in some sort of enchanted lagoon and transforms the lot of them to a family of bona fide super heroes (or, perhaps more accurately, an "ordinary" family with super powers). The character’s transformation provides Chiklis (who becomes nearly invulnerable) with some more fantastical opportunities while on the job than his prior roles, prompting him to boast about tweeting while on set, "today at work I’m jumping off of a bridge. You?" Playing off one of the pilot’s most comedic moments, Chiklis finally declared that his favorite part of the show is getting to have a "lair with wifi!"
Julie Benz, who plays lightning-fast Stephanie, also stressed her desire to do something different after spending four seasons on "Dexter" playing Rita, a passive, battered woman unknowingly married to a serial killer. "I wanted to play the strongest female character I could find," says Benz, "the exact opposite of Rita." Benz certainly could have done worse than Stephanie, a world-renowned medical researcher and mother-of-two turned superhero.
The show itself comes across as a mishmash of "Heroes" and "Modern Family," with Chiklis and Benz speaking directly into the camera about their family life in documentary-style interludes. The set-up provides some funny lines (and one mildly humorous twist at the end), though it also seems a little out of place and derivative, and it’s something the show will have to work on in future episodes if it’s intended be a long-running format.
But it’s also clear that much of show’s mishmash of genres, styles and tones leaves some wrinkles that need to be ironed out. It often feels as if the show is trying to do too much, throwing in cutesy gags with cutesy narration and action sequences alongside heartfelt family moments, often within the same scene. At the beginning of the pilot, as the family’s plane plummets into the Brazilian rainforest, Benz’s Stephanie asks her texting-obsessed daughter, "who are you texting now?" To which Daphnie replies, "God!" Moments later she exclaims, "I’m going to die and I haven’t even done it yet!" And then we’re back to the "Modern Family" style interviews, before cutting to the death of a pilot and a shot of effervescent, power-endowing water. From the very beginning it’s all a bit much, and the result is a tonal strangeness that makes it difficult to truly enjoy the show’s individual elements. Hopefully "No Ordinary Family" can take note of its flaws and work the kinks out from its premise during its first season, because it’s put together a talented enough cast that you want to see it work.
The panel was rounded out by writers and creators Greg Berlanti and Jon Feldman, who cite the fact that every family "feels a little damaged," as their inspiration for "No Ordinary Family," which they intend as a sort of wish fulfillment. They explain that each of their characters acquires a superpower that is directly the inverse of their deficiency. Jim, who feels powerless in relation to his high-achieving wife, becomes nearly invincible, while Stephanie, unable to balance both her work and family life, gains the power of super speed. Self-involved Daphne, meanwhile, becomes a mind-reader, and JJ goes from being a kid with a learning disability to a "super genius."
Berlanti and Feldman, however, also dropped hints that they ultimately aim at something beyond mere wish fulfillment, suggesting that things become problematic when other super-powered characters emerge (including Josh Stewart as a "watcher"), and it becomes clear that the "intent of the powers isn’t a good thing."
But for the most part the panel was an opportunity for the two leads to show off their chemistry and display the good humor we can hopefully expect to see in the series. One of the more enjoyable moments was Michael Chiklis’ befuddled reaction to being informed (by a member of the crowd) that Michael C. Hall had referred to him as "Michael C. Hiklis" during the "Dexter" panel.
Of course, this is Comic-Con, and despite the crowd’s appreciative reaction (Jon Feldman missed his own introduction due to the volume of the applause for Chiklis), there were those who, first and foremost, wanted to know how much of the super-hero genre we can expect "No Ordinary Family" to indulge in. One fan asked Chiklis if we could expect to see him in a costume. But Chiklis laughed, and then dashed any hopes that the series would turn into a full-on live-action version of "The Incredibles," responding:
"You don’t want to see me in spandex."