The Family is swimming in familiar waters. Creator Jenna Bans has resided in ShondaLand for years, working on both Grey's Anatomy and Scandal, and the influence of Shonda Rhimes hangs on heavily in her new effort. There's also a bit of Broadchurch lingering in the corner, too — The Family takes a horrible tragedy involving a child and plays out the consequences across a cross-section of townspeople.
This pilot tries hard to have it both ways, reaching for the pulpy glories of Rhimes at her best, as well as the emotional depths of Broadchurch. It succeeds intermittently, relying on its talented cast and the vast, vague implications of its plotting to hold our interest.
The catalyzing force of the series is the disappearance of Adam Warren (Liam James), a young boy who was presumed dead for ten years until he suddenly returns, claiming to have been held captive the entire time. His mother, Claire (Joan Allen), is the mayor of the Maine town where the Warrens live. Her son's reemergence promises to wake up a lot of sleeping demons. Oh, and there might be some vast conspiracy going on, too.
The characters are sketched out with the broad strokes that you'd expect from a pilot. Claire is steely and ambitious, but also Damaged with a captial D. John (Rupert Graves), the shifty husband, spent the years after Adam's disappearance cheating on Claire and writing books about grief. He is also Damaged. ("I'm married to a machine, not a wife!" he cries in one of the episode's more dubious lines.) There's Willa (Allison Pill), the daughter/political adviser/responsible one, who runs Claire's communications team. We are repeatedly told that Willa is not only Damaged, but Damaged and Religious. Rounding out the cast is Danny (Zach Gilford), the black sheep who drinks too much. He was supposed to keep track of Adam on the night he vanished, but he was busy making out with a girl. He, too, is Damaged.
There's Nina Meyer (Margot Bingham), the cop who both handled Adam's case and has had a long affair with John. At one point in the episode, they have an extra-classy assignation in an interrogation room, splayed atop old newspaper clippings about Adam. And there's Hank Asher (Andrew McCarthy), the man who was falsely imprisoned for Adam's murder. These days, he walks around Red Pines being ominous and complicated. It goes without saying that these people are also Damaged. This is the kind of show where people drink out of giant bottles of booze while making grim expressions. They've all just been through so much.
The pilot tries to blend these ingredients into a stew of two dominant flavors. The first is "realistic family drama," which focuses on the Warren family's attempts to handle Adam's sudden return. The second is "deranged and possibly huge conspiracy," which suggests that the Adam who has returned may not be the real Adam at all.
So far, the first approach runs much more smoothly. The show is obviously lucky to have Joan Allen in its lead role; she inhabits Claire's many contradictions with admirable aplomb. This is a woman who watched her youngest son disappear, her marriage fall apart, her children become deeply wounded, and nonetheless managed to steadily climb the political ladder. Allen sketches out this uneasy blend within moments of screen time. When Adam is returned to Claire, she lets out a guttural, frightening moan of mingled grief and relief. It's a sound that's hard to shake. A couple of scenes later, she's dressing Danny down with an equally mesmerizing viciousness. "You are my son, and I will always love you, but you're a drunk," she spits, "and it's my fault for cleaning up after you." Then, at the end of the episode, she's tying Adam's tie with an almost serene tenderness — right before placing him behind her as she shamelessly uses his story to launch her gubernatorial campaign.
Although no other actor is given enough material to match Allen, this version of The Family — the version that considers what the possible murder of a child does to people, what happens when something awful but settled suddenly becomes unsettled, and how someone as inherently disingenuous as a politician handles such a human tragedy — is intriguing and moving, if not masterfully done. The unavoidable soapy flourishes, like John's infidelity and whatever secret Willa seems to be hiding, are also nicely titillating.
The conspiratorial-thriller aspect of the show is also compelling, but after a single episode, it compels mostly with brute force. This is another common burden of a pilot, which by its nature demands a ton of setup, but the choice of conspiracy is nonetheless strange. We get lots of little hints that "Adam" might not be the real deal. The doctor who ran his DNA test apparently doesn't exist, he sits up watching old home movies of himself and memorizing the lines, he doesn't remember details about the ships in bottles he used to love, and on and on. Which, fine. Maybe he's not the real deal. Maybe there are shadowy forces behind his disappearance. But is The Family really going to play out that mystery over multiple seasons? I don't think so. If Adam is a fake, are we then going to find the "real" Adam and go through this rotten business all over again? Set against the interesting, but more mundane machinations of the political-intrigue side of things, this conspiracy angle can feel unnecessary.
But still, this is just the first episode. And by the time it ends, The Family gives us enough reasons to seek out the second, if only just barely so.
- Full disclosure: I am a part-time freelancer for Fusion, which is partially owned by ABC.
- The most insane part of the pilot is when we get to the local newspaper. Like almost all media establishments in television shows, it bears absolutely no resemblance to the real thing. First of all, it seems awfully … thriving for a small Maine paper. Second, one of its staffers is a self-described "lesbian lifestyle blogger" named Bridey Cruz — yes, that is her name — who roams the office in short shorts and pledges to get the real dirt on the Warren family and outrace the national press that's descended on Red Pines in droves. It goes without saying that she does this in very shady ways, adding one more name to the long list of inexplicably predatory and devious fictional female journalists.
- Bridey also gets the honor of uttering the line, "This is our story and there's a hell of a lot more to it!" LOL.
- The pilot ends on some random guy we haven't seen before and won't really meet until the next episode, which will air on Sunday. I never like it when episodes end that way.