Watching the first two episodes of ABC’s new suspense-thriller show, “The Family,” I kept thinking to myself how the premise of writer Jenna Bans story would have been much better served as a feature film rather than the episodic “whodunit” it now stand as on a weekly basis.
“The Family” has a simple enough of a setup: The Warren family’s eight year old son Adam goes missing and is presumed dead. Their neighbor, who is a registered sex offender, is turned to as a person of interest and is eventually arrested and put behind bars for the crime. Ten long years go by. The family moves on and deals with the loss of their son and brother in a variety of ways: The matriarch of the clan (Joan Allen) becomes a rising politician, channeling her pain into a political arena. The husband begins an affair with a woman who also happens to be — wait for it, soap opera fans! — the investigating police sergeant in his missing son’s case. The daughter of the family becomes cool and distant, blossoming into a polished “fixer” for her mother and her ever-increasing political ambitions. The older son retreats into a world of alcohol and anonymous sex, playing every bit the ne’er do well son to the memory of his deceased younger brother’s angelic reputation. And then, one unexpected day, the boy who everyone had presumed dead comes back, very much alive and maybe not so well after apparently being held captive by someone other than the man put behind bars for his “murder.”
The show really is about three things, all presumably inexorably connected at the end of the day; the life of a family before tragedy strikes, the fallout suffered by these people in the ensuing decade, and finally the pieces they’re forced to pick up and self-examine when Adam Warren slips back into their lot. The show is presented and sold as a mystery and as such, various rabbit holes are gone down: Where has Adam been for all of these years? Is he really “Adam” or a clever imposter? Is the man who served years in prison for the disappearance completely innocent of the crime? If so, where is the real villain of the piece? Despite all of the smoke and mirrors though, this is just fancy wrapping paper for the above mentioned three dynamics. It’s a shame then that what must have sounded clever and intriguing on paper comes across as more cloying and sensationalistic on the screen.
Joan Allen, a tremendous actress who has been absent too long on the silver screen, here delivers a somewhat wooden and stilted performance. Her character is written to go through the motions of grief, but it all seems too clichÃ©d and trite. It’s as if Allen, one of the best actresses of her generation, has not committed fully to a character that she knows is not well drawn out and believable. Instead, what we’re presented with here is an incomplete sketch of a character. That is a problem when you’re talking about an actress who is supposed to anchor a major show.
The part of the husband in the show goes to veteran actor Rupert Graves who, like Allen, is done a tremendous disservice by a plot that is far too contrived and gaudy. Graves is an actor who, when a camera is turned on him, can only act in truths. What to do then when his character is given an unbelievable soap opera style affair with the chief investigator (Margot Bingham in a role that might have been best cast to an actress who is older and carries with her more gravitas) in his son’s disappearance? I’m afraid the key word to this whole review is “contrived,” and that is exactly what this plot “twist” strikes one as. Rather than build a drama and a window into two tortured souls reaching out for one another, this affair resembles something used by a group of desperate writers wanting to appeal to the same viewers who routinely tune into “ShondaLand” style programming. To quote a wise man: “I ain’t buyin’ it!”
Thrown into the above mix is an upwardly mobile news reporter with an eye on climbing the media ladder by “breaking” the story of the older Warren brother’s belief that the teenager who has returned claiming to be his missing brother is, in fact, an imposter. She and her editor will stop at nothing to show the bigger media outlets that this is their story to exploit and sensationalize. At one point, in an awkward scene, the reporter seduces the intoxicated elder sibling, having sex with him in a public restroom, all in order to get to the bottom of the mystery. It’s a scene that plays just as unbelievably as it reads.
If there is any shining light to the proceedings, it belongs to veteran actor and former “Brat Packer” Andrew McCarthy, who here walks a fine line between allowing an audience to feel empathy for his damaged character and alternately feel disgust. This is a good actor who is certainly due for a major comeback. Unfortunately, the vehicle for his fine acting lets him down. McCarthy is a champion racer running laps on an overgrown racetrack in a Ford Pinto.
Skip “The Family” if you’re tastes run more towards well-crafted mysteries such as “Gone Girl” or “Zodiac.” However, if a hot mess is what you crave, this new ABC show aims to deliver in huge and heaping portions.