Fantastic Families: Mid-Season Review of Smallville and No Ordinary Family

Written by David Molofsky
So far, this blog has mainly been concerned with Superhero Films and I haven’t been dealing with Superhero TV Shows as explicitly. I’d like to make it clear that I include anything in the motion picture media as falling under the umbrella of “film”. Since I’ve got some time during this short break from the Character Series, I thought I would take the opportunity to do a mid-season wrap up of this season’s two biggest Superhero TV Shows: No Ordinary Family and Smallville.
These are two very different shows and they are in two very different places. No Ordinary Family is just starting its debut season whereas Smallville is in its tenth and final season. More importantly, Smallville was the first Golden Age Superhero TV Show and without it No Ordinary Family wouldn’t even exist. Smallville is based on a long and well-established mythology, while No Ordinary Family is a completely original concept. But the main thing that ties these two shows together is not the fact that the main characters can stop bullets with their bare hands. It’s that both of them are based around families.
Superhero families have become much more common on TV lately than in film. This probably has a lot to do with the success of Buffy The Vampire Slayer and Angel, both of which were quasi-Superhero Shows that emphasized family and the family unit. Heroes, was so saturated in family politics that it ultimately drowned from it. Keeping all of this in mind, it was still surprising to see the degree to which Smallville has become built around families, especially ones that were not always a part of the Superman comics.
Smallville has placed much more focus on the Luthor and Kent families than any other incarnation of Superman to date. While Clark’s Kryptonian and Earth parents have both been well established in the canon, the Luthor family barely existed before the show. Lionel Luthor was created specifically for the show and it is the only place where Lex’s own childhood and growth has been addressed. It is also the first version of Superman to connect Lex and Clark from an early age and to portray their early friendship. Lex and Clark are often described like brothers in the early seasons, filling in the gap each feels as an only child.
The show also draws many comparisons between Jor-El and Lionel. Each of them is the source of their son’s power, and is equally able of taking it away. This gives them a large degree of control over the direction of their son’s lives, and Jor-El is often just as manipulative as Lionel.
Ever since Lex’s departure at the end of season 7, the major villain for each season has been based in some way around the idea of family. In Season 8, the evil Doomsday was the “son” of General Zod and his wife Faora. Just like the Luthors were the rivals of the Kents, Zod’s family was the rival of the House of El. In season 9, the villain was Zod himself, who was attempting to rebuild his Kryptonian family on earth. Thus, just as Lex was Clark’s Earthly dark mirror, Doomsday and Zod were Clark’s Krytonian dark mirrors, the products of evil families instead of Clark’s good families.
It has not become clear how Darkseid, the villain of the current season, fits into this mold of family, and its possible that he never will. Still, every episode this season has dealt directly with some issue of family:
10×01 – Lazarus: Clark has a vision of his deceased father, Jonathan Kent.
10×02 – Shield: Carter tells the story of his life/lives with Shayera.
10×03 – Supergirl: Clark’s cousin Kara returns.
10×04 – Homecoming: Clark sees the truth about his father’s death and the important role that Lois will play in his future as Superman.
10×05 – Isis & 10×06 – Harvest: Tess forges a family with Alexander (continues in other episodes as well).
10×07 – Ambush: Lois’ father and sister visit Clark and Lois and Clark gains their approval.
10×08 – Abandoned: Lois finds a video of her mother from before she died. Tess returns to the orphanage where she was raised and learns of her true connection to the Luthor family. Lois and Clark sees images of Jor-El and Lara in the fortress, telling him how much they love him.
10×09 – Patriot: Aquaman and his new wife Mera show Clark how important family can be – even in crime fighting.
10×10 – Luthor: Clark learns what it would have been like if he had been raised by a different family, the Luthors (see Villains post).
10×11 – Icarus: Clark proposes to Lois and brings her officially into his superhero family.
This season has shown how important Clark’s family is going to be once he finally becomes Superman, emphasizing that he will never truly be a lone hero. Clark relies on his family for support and as a reminder of his dual heritage. It is because of his family that Clark becomes the world’s greatest hero. This constant theme of family is one of many factors that has made this current season so great. I have been very impressed by the show lately and this season is shaping up to be a very nice closing for the show. The last four episodes in particular have been especially impressive and some of the best episodes of the whole series. With only a dozen or so episodes left, it will be very exciting to see what the writers decide to do to bring their epic tale to a close.
I’ll be honest, when I first watched the pilot for No Ordinary Family when it was released online over the summer, I was underwhelmed. It felt like I was literally watching “The Incredibles: The TV Show“, and while The Incredibles is one of my favorite movies, I have always been thankful that it never got a sequel. At some point, the family superhero story just can’t be sustained – right?
Not quite. No Ordinary Family has picked up quite nicely and I must admit that I have been pleasantly surprised. For one, I seemed to have missed the last scene of the pilot episode, which sets up the villains of the series and adds the bit of darkness that the show was desperately missing. (While we’re on the subject, I wouldn’t be surprised if the Watcher becomes the new Sylar; he’s just as, if not more, creepy than everyone’s last favorite super-powered serial killer and I love the weaker moments the character has had as well. But I’m getting ahead of myself.) Still, the show isn’t as amazing as it could be just yet.
The show has essentially merged the family dramedy with the superhero genre and has made it work surprisingly well. Watching the first half of the season, I have found myself tipping my hat to the writers on more than one occasion. I had been initially turned off by the fact that the Powells’ powers came from phosphorescent water, but was pleasantly surprised when this was found not to be the case in episode 2. Making the Powell’s powers directly related to the super villains is much more intriguing, and something I wish they had included in the pilot. Nothing hurts a superhero story more than a lame origin, and “glowing water” is about as lame as it gets. But a conspiracy involving the company a main character works for, which she might unwittingly be a part of? Much better.
One of the best ways that the show combines the superhero and family genres is that each of the Powells’ powers reflects their place in the family. Stephanie, the career woman who doesn’t have time to be a homemaker, gets the power of super speed and so has more time to spend with her family.
Daphne, the insecure high school girl, is given the power to read people’s thoughts. This is probably a power many high school girls wish they had, to be able to actually know what other people think of them. Daphne uses her power almost exclusively to make others like her more and become more popular.
JJ’s super smarts provide the perfect metaphor for performance-enhancing drugs. It is as though he was given super-ritalin. The question then becomes whether he should use this power to give himself an unfair advantage in school and sports? This is an issue many families have to deal with in our current, over-medicated society, and the way it extends to the other Powells is especially interesting.
And then there’s Jim. As the father and protector of the family, Jim is given super strength and durability. His powers are designed to make him a better fighter, exactly the skills a father would need in the animal kingdom. Jim takes these powers and essentially decides to become a father to the whole city, watching over it like it was his child. Thus, Jim becomes torn between his need to protect his own family and his need to protect everyone else’s. This is a very nice twist on the Hero’s identity crisis and one I hope they continue.
This approach to the powers is one of the most successful aspects of No Ordinary Family. The superpowers become the catalyst for many issues and arguments that every family has to deal with. Having these same issues play out within the metaphor of superpowers gives a unique spin on otherwise boring topics. This contrasts with the use of family in Heroes, where family was forced upon the characters and clashed with the superhero aspects. No Ordinary Family’s approach allows for a more natural interaction.
As much as I am enjoying No Ordinary Family and think that it has done a great job of weaving two different genres together, it definitely has its weak points. As much as I enjoy much of what the writers have done conceptually, some of the execution is still lacking. The show is becoming a little too comic-book-y (okay in small doses, not so much in large ones) and already seems to be descending into a self-parody. For instance, Katie started off as only mildly geeky in her liking for sci-fi. Now she can barely get two words out without making and obscure reference. She goes so far as to tell Joshua that she is a virgin by saying “You’re about to boldly go where no man has gone before.” The shows dialogue has been pretty corny in general, but that line was just ridiculous. I was also greatly disappointed by the opening of last week’s episode where the Watcher’s creepiest moment, wiping Daphne’s memory, has all of 10 seconds of consequences.
I still have hopes for the show, but they are not as high as they used to be. The interaction between the powers and the family is definitely still the strongest aspect of the show, but it’s starting to look like the writers have used up all their best ideas already. Hopefully the Dr. Childs conspiracy storyline will pick up a bit. Regardless, the show is not beyond saving and still has a lot of potential.

About the author

David Molofsky

David is the Owner & Editor-in-Chief of AP2HYC.