Sunday, March 6, 2016

Pilot Review: The Family

The Family (Sundays at 9:00 on ABC)

The Family may be another soap opera for ABC to add to its roster, but they have such an impressive list because they have discovered the secret to a soap's success: good acting. The storylines for shows like Scandal and How to Get Away with Murder are absurd, over-the-top craziness (maybe not quite as ludicrous as what's on daytime soaps, but still), but they have Kerry Washington and Viola Davis anchoring the insanity, respectively. Strong performances can bring gravity to an otherwise unbelievable story, and The Family fits snugly into this formula.

The family at the center of the story is the Warrens: matriarch Claire (three-time Oscar nominee Joan Allen), the mayor of a small town in Maine with her sights set on higher office; her husband John (Rupert Graves, Sherlock), an author; daughter and holy roller Willa (Alison Pill, The Newsroom), also her press coordinator; and disappointing, alcoholic son Danny (Zach Gilford, Friday Night Lights). The missing link is Adam, the youngest child who disappeared soon after his ninth birthday and was declared dead after neighbor Hank (Andrew McCarthy) confessed to the boy's murder. Ten years later, however, Adam (Liam James, The Killing), returns and claims to have been held prisoner by a man with holes in his face. But is Adam who he says he is? dun dun DUN!

Whether or not The Family has the chops to stick around like many of ABC's fan-favorite soaps remains to be seen and hinges on how the central mysteries are solved. Chief among those is, obviously, if Adam is really Adam. The pilot presents evidence for both sides but seems to be leading us toward "not." Either way, the mystery of Adam's disappearance and return isn't the only plot thread creator Jenna Bans (Desperate Housewives, Scandal) left open to exploration. Every character has a secret or a quirk: Willa's sudden and intense religiosity, John's affair with the detective (Margot Bingham, Boardwalk Empire) who put Hank away and has taken over his kidnapping case, and more. What really happened ten years ago, and how does that affect who these people are today?

It's not really a ground-breaking question to answer, but Bans' writing is clever and surprisingly non-melodramatic, so I'm interested in getting to the bottom of things. There is a dearth of possibilities for the writers with this cast of characters. Aside from the general intrigue, the other reason to give The Family a try is its cast. Led by Allen in a solid central performance, ranging from touching to distant and chilling across just the first episode, the cast is top-notch. McCarthy is also affecting as the accused murderer, eliciting empathy and fear with a quiet intensity and sadness. The only lacking performance is from Bingham, though it's no fault of hers, really. She just looks far too young to have been a police officer ten years ago (or a detective now... like, did she graduate from the police academy at 13?), and it's uncomfortable when her sexual relationship with John is revealed. Hank is the supposed pedophile, but you may question Claire's husband after seeing the age difference between him and the sergeant. Another unfortunate side effect of looking so young is that it's hard to take her seriously, and her interrogation scene with Adam borders on laughable because of this.

I also want more emotion. The characters don't always act the way real people would (upon your presumed-dead child returning to you, would you really consider taking on a bigger workload?), but that's what makes The Family a soap. I want to see more depth in future episodes, particularly from Claire. Because there's so much going on in the pilot, setting up the characters and overarching story (and catching us up via flashbacks), there's not a lot of time spent on how these people feel. What are the lasting effects of a broken family? We learn how the family members have dealt with the loss of Adam (drinking, infidelity, religion, overworking), but we never really learn how they feel. I would also like to see how the community was affected; Red Pines is a (fictional) small town, so you would think the repercussion of Adam's supposed death would be far-reaching. I would love to see how, maybe, his teachers responded, or his young friends. (Maybe I just really want this to be Resurrection 2.0...) These kinds of stories would provide more of an emotional core. I found McCarthy's to be the most effective performance, for example, and it's because he acts in small moments: a shaky hand knocks over a grocery store display, and the harsh glances of a crowd lead to silent tears. More moments like that would provide a rounder, more rewarding viewing experience.

As things stand, I'm mostly returning for episode two because of the drama. There's a lot of plot in the pilot, and it's reasonably compelling so far. But with some more depth to the characters, The Family could be a top-tier nighttime soap.

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