Two episodes were provided prior to broadcast.
It’s hard to argue against the claim that ABC’s new crime drama The Family is little more than a protracted Lifetime original movie. It’s got a set-up that’s somewhere between the gooey melodrama of The Deep End of the Ocean and the shattered family dynamic of The Lovely Bones, and the two hours sent to critics have a generic production value that’s a bit hollow and uninspired in a made-for-TV-movie sort of way. That’s especially clear with the show is held up against the crime drama to beat right now: ABC’S own American Crime.
The Family‘s pilot works arduously as it tries to obliterate that “second-rate” classification, dumping viewers directly into the day Adam (Liam James), who’s been missing for ten years, returns home to his family in Red Pines, Maine. The episode showcases emotional reunions alongside hard-to-look-at scars, and the jigsaw puzzle that the show desperately wants to be occasionally satisfies, especially given its place in a culture fascinated with true-crime tales. But trying to slot The Family‘s assorted enigmas into place is like doing a puzzle without the context of the picture on the cover of the box: it’s true that the end result might be more satisfying, but you probably won’t see it through to the end in the first place.
Boredom and frustration sets it, mostly because of the show’s central mystery – put another way, I’m not entirely sure what the show’s central mystery is. Here are the major pieces: Adam was kidnapped from a campaign rally in support of his mom, politician Claire Warren (Joan Allen), when he was eight. His brother Danny (Zach Gilford in the present, Rarmian Newton in flashbacks) feels guilty because he was supposed to be watching Adam but relinquished the duty to sister Willa (Alison Pill in the present, Madeleine Arthur in flashbacks), who promptly lost sight of the tyke.
Jump forward ten years. The Warren’s neighbor has been jailed for Adam’s alleged killing, Claire is the new mayor of Red Pines, dad John (Rupert Graves) has written a book on the story, Willa has turned to religion as a coping mechanism, and Danny has followed suit with alcohol. There’s a cop (Margot Bingham, who’s awesome) and creepy neighbor (Andrew McCarthy, who’s not) in the mix, along with the face of Adam’s abductor, who is showcased early on. That shrug-worthy reveal is the first big culprit responsible for why The Family‘s befuddling mystery doesn’t quite work. As too many shows do nowadays, all in response to the uproar over the extensive confusion of the Losts and Fringes of the world, The Family throws answers down fast and loose, never stopping to let you ask the right questions first.
Although there isn’t a shock to be had, the pilot is fun through its sheer, virtuoso act of streamlining something so by-the-books pedestrian into a semi-juicy hour of TV. There are upticks in tension when all of the bickering Warrens are stuck in a room together, but the series tries too hard to present them as your average TV drama family who peddle secrets as much as lies (the father is unfaithful, Willa’s repenting for a mysterious past sin, yadda yadda). The skeletons in these closets couldn’t look more fake if they came from Party City. Seriously, The Family could have been called Secrets and Lies for all the good it would do to the dramatically inert interchangeability of each series.
Last summer, I liked the first few hours of that Ryan Phillippe-led series, but it lost me fast. Like that show, The Family starts off strong, but already stumbles in the second episode. The pilot could get a pass for being slightly perplexing given the simple fact of its nascence; but the second hour does nothing to instil confidence that the show will grow stronger in the future. No new ground is gained in the case, with most of the hour spent compounding on puzzle pieces placed in the previous episode, as if the writers are making sure you remember how this mountain range piece connects to that swath of sky, unsure of our ability to handle another piece right away.
It’s an act of hand-holding that both feels derogatory in its attempt to be comprehensible and just adds to the listlessness of the central plot. The real estate The Family will find itself in when it premieres on March 3 – namely, smack dab in the middle of the world-dominating TGIT line-up, before it moves to a normal time on Sundays – only makes its unsuccessful grabs at twisty, crazy goodness more disheartening.
The one notable exception to Thee Family‘s general lethargy is a subplot wherein Danny begins suspecting that young Adam might not be who he says he is; this feels like the main thrust of The Family, but as a mystery it feels over-eager. Why make us wonder who Adam is before we even question where he’s been for ten years, or why he was taken, or who had him? The plot, while limp as far as whodunnits go, generates a few satisfyingly cheesy scenes where Adam’s potential duplicitousness is front and center. James (who was kind of remarkable a few summers ago in The Way, Way Back) is playing up the creepy kid shtick, and though it occasionally falls flat, when it hits, it really hits.
Allen is getting top billing as the bereaved mother, and she’s a good anchor for the dark show, but Bingham’s Sergeant Nina Meyer is the powder keg at the center. Starting out as a street-running officer on Adam’s disappearance, Meyer’s interwoven connections with the Warrens throughout the ten years of their son’s disappearance gives the show a rough, hard-edged emotional core. She’s hilariously blunt – “You might as well bury your son now,” she advises the teary-eyed, feuding family on the day of Adam’s kidnapping when they refuse to work together – and compulsive over the case in that addictive-to-watch, Homeland-esque kind of way.
She does a lot to convince you of the case’s more sadistic, serious side, but still isn’t quite enough to tie The Family together. I’m not sure what could have, but toward the end of the second hour, when the FBI trots into the storyline and genre clichés are embraced (Adam has to sleep in the closet to feel safe), the other major downer of The Family begins to stand out: it’s repetitive. There’s fleeting glimpses of intuitive story structuring and interesting characters, but the show’s execution feels staid. With so much great TV on right now, even middle-of-the-road entries have to be better than this.
Some of the mysteries behind The Family pique interest, but the overarching story mostly drags and befuddles due to the show's clinical, generic execution, something that detaches you from the Warren's drama when it should be sucking you in.