No Ordinary Family hasn't decided what it wanted to be. It's worked as three different shows. The one that it's been pitched as, and has attempted most commonly, is the hour-long dramedy about the American family discovering itself via superpowers. As a pilot and origin story, this worked pretty well, but it's borne diminishing returns ever since. It's too middle-of-the-road. There are some funny bits and some dramatic bits, a lesson might get learned, and the same thing happens next week. Hell, this can work for TV, but it hasn't worked for No Ordinary Family.
The reason for that is that the two other show formats it's experimented with have been better. One's a sitcom. Sometimes, it really wants to just be wacky. From the beginning, the sidekicks, Romany Malco and Autumn Reeser, have outshone the stars. They're consistently well-written, with decent repartee. All the other cast members have also demonstrated decent comic timing, but for some reason, their superpowers have also come at the cost of consistent comic writing.
The third show that No Ordinary Family has worked toward is the partially serialized format common to speculative fiction shows since The X-Files and Buffy the Vampire Slayer. There's generally a monster-of-the-week, but as the season progresses, serialized elements, which have been part of the show from the beginning, started to take over. That takeover often comes from multi-part episodes, often timed for sweeps month and season finales. It pushes the show more toward the dramatic, but No Ordinary Family's biggest problem hasn't been its drama. Or its comedy. It's been that it's blend of the two.
Tonight takes a small step back from last week's pure serialization, but it maintains its forward momentum while bringing some emotion and characterization into the mix. It's not as funny as the show when it's been at its most comic, but it's a much stronger episode. Hell, it's an outright good episode. Other than a couple of awkward moments at the beginning and ending of the episode and making the villain a bit too black & white, it's straight-up interesting television.
Part of the reason this episode works is that it gives the villains more to do. A good superhero story has to have good villains, otherwise it's pretty much just an origin story, and that's what No Ordinary Family was for far too long. CEO Palpatine, aka Dr. King, and Mr. Litchfield, JJ's jerkass math teacher both get some wonderful scenery-chewing to do this week. Joshua proposes to Katie, which triggers an engagement party, where Palpatine shows up to give a marvelously smarmy toast. Meanwhile, Litchfield is determined to add JJ to his academic decathlon team. They know they're in a live-action comic, and they relish the opportunity. Joshua shows up to tell Dr. King that he's not interested in helping him out, again, which is kind of a dumbass move other than providing a plot point, but it gives the opportunity for the fun exchange “You turned me into a killer.” “De-tails…!” Meanwhile, Litchfield sees JJ trying to get with Natalie, but she brushes him off by chasing a scholarship… and the camera puts him into focus looking like a creep. It's good silly fun.
The show also makes a successful, unforced callback to one of its strongest dramatic moments, Daphne having her memory erased by Joshua. This was a well-done scene that ended the first half-season, and after a six-week break, was almost instantly retconned out of existence. It actually came up naturally, and for No Ordinary Family, downright subtly: Dr. King, talking with Stephanie, who is theoretically his new ally, mentions Joshua's memory erasure abilities in regards to his chat with Katie a few weeks ago. Unlike the complete morons of heroes who had been portrayed on this show last week, Stephanie immediately figures out that he's talking about her daughter, and Jim and Katie take immediate action against Joshua, cutting him off.
There's a decided Buffy feel to the entire episode, actually, which comes in part from its reliance on '90s alternarock (seriously, what on earth were the Powells listening to at the engagement party?) The episode even ends on a montage set to something appropriately guitary and emotional. Given that Buffy is probably the most successful superhero show of all time, this is not the worst influence to have.
It's the kind of episode that holds a good show together. It's not perfect, but nothing's too terrible to work. The main storyline, involving Daphne's boyfriend Chris stealing a serum to give to his paralyzed dad, misses the chance to engage with the idea of the causes of criminality, although it does expand the show's mythology, when Stephanie says that the super-serum “takes who you are and amplifies it.” There's also a heavy-handed bit where Jim, chasing a criminal, accidentally deflects a bullet through a window and hits an unsuspecting bystander, which only gets resolved when he not only gets better, but through the process, the doctors find a tumor that would have killed him! It's an unnecessary, facile examination of the morality of collateral damage. But it's the only really major misstep in No Ordinary Family's first legitimately, all-around good episode.
- Jim wants to give the injured kid the super-serum. Stephanie has apparently been watching Star Trek, as she says, “Interfering in this kid's life is not a solution.”
- Autumn Reeser doesn't have a whole lot of comic work to do here, but she's pretty good at the dramatic stuff, too.
- Romany Malco's got the better bits, but it's mostly physical comedy, working out with Jim in the lair, teaching him to box. Although apparently they use a table covered with flat-panel monitors as one of the ring's boundaries. That seems like a bad idea.
- Super-speed doesn't seem to stop Stephanie from getting punched in the face. Guess it doesn't include superperception.
- Mr. Litchfield is, in the end, revealed to be freelancing for CEO Palpatine. Which is a bit silly; I like him more as just a total asshole.