Describing The Family feels like describing a broadcast television network's platonic ideal of what a drama should be. The new ABC series focuses on the Warren family, whose youngest son, Adam, disappeared when he was 8 years old. He was eventually presumed dead — so when he reappears out of nowhere 10 years later, having spent those 10 years as the hostage of a sexually abusive kidnapper, it's fair to say his family is shocked.
But they also aren't the same people he left behind; during the decade Adam was gone, they fractured into splinters, becoming more strained versions of who they used to be.
In the two episodes of The Family that were screened for critics, the show certainly indulges in some soapier TV traditions (because it can), and some unnecessarily flashy episode structure (because it wants to). But as its characters try to make sense of a terrible thing — or, more accurately, an ongoing series of terrible things — The Family wrings some terrifically unsettling moments out of the constant, simmering tension surrounding the Warrens, the sex offender they wrongfully imprisoned for Adam's murder (Andrew McCarthy), the police and media circling the story, and Adam himself.
Or, as the show asks while practically twirling its mustache in delight: Is this kid the real Adam Warren, after all?
And so The Family — the brainchild of Jenna Bans, a longtime TV writer and producer whose credits include the Shonda Rhimes dramas Private Practice and Grey's Anatomy — boasts a perfect storm of melodramatic possibilities: a grieving family, secretive Maine suburbia, an open-ended case, a man whose innocence is always in question, and even some "let's get back to family values" politics, because why not?
There are so many components of The Family — both promising and troubling — that the show is easiest to discuss by actually breaking it down into even just a couple pieces of its ever-complicating puzzle.
The Family's strongest asset is its deeply talented cast
The Family is a solid soap. It's willing to get into the grit of a fraught, complex criminal case, but it still leaves room for salacious details — like Adam's father, John (Rupert Graves), having a longstanding affair with Nina Meyer (Margot Bingham), the detective first assigned to investigate Adam's disappearance, who must now deal with the fact that she might have bungled the investigation in the first place.
There's a lot of melodrama at hand. But thanks to The Family's stellar set of actors, who find nuance in its more exaggerated scenes, the show hangs together more than it might have with a less skilled cast.
In the aftermath of Adam's disappearance, matriarch Claire Warren (Joan Allen) became the mayor of the family's hometown in Maine, with dreams of one day being the state's governor. Her husband, John, wrote a book about how to grieve, but he never truly mastered the process. Their daughter, Willa (The Newsroom's Alison Pill), embraced Catholicism and became her mother's no-nonsense campaign manager, while their oldest son, Danny (Friday Night Lights' Zach Gilford), left his football dreams behind to drown himself in a flask of bourbon.
None of these roles are particularly compelling on paper; we've seen versions of all these characters before. But every actor involved in The Family is so committed to finding something more compelling below the boiling surface that they elevate the series overall.
Allen gets the richest material, as Claire struggles to understand Adam's reappearance while continuing to set her sights firmly on higher political office. She's determined and focused but, in an ongoing theme of The Family, still lost.
Graves, who's found depth as many side characters on British television (see: Sherlock, where he plays the perpetually bumbling Detective Lestrade), is in essentially the same boat with his portrayal of John, but the character's grief plays second fiddle to his wife's. And while John's relationship with Bingham's Nina is clearly complicated, none of their interactions let Bingham shine quite like the contrast between her jaded detective in the present and her rookie cop in The Family's flashbacks to when Adam first went missing (more on those flashbacks in a bit).
As the Warren kids, though, Pill and Gilford win the prize for doing a lot with very little. Willa and Danny don't have much to do in The Family's first two episodes, but the actors' portrayals hint at much more brewing underneath.
Still, many of the series' most compelling moments come courtesy of the two actors tasked with handling the trickiest characters. With Adam, Liam James faces an incredibly difficult challenge. He has to play traumatized, as he's returned to the Warrens after living in a hole with a sexual predator for 10 years. But he also has to leave enough room for some people (namely his older brother, Danny) to doubt the veracity of his story, the better to maintain The Family's central mystery. James is constantly performing on a knife's edge, and, at least in the show's first two episodes, he does an impressive job.
But it's McCarthy who somewhat unexpectedly makes the biggest impression as Hank, the Warrens' neighbor whose prior indecent exposure conviction and stash of child pornography helped Nina put him away for Adam's murder all those years ago — probably wrongfully, but at this point, it's impossible to know for sure (he was released from prison when Adam, or someone purporting to be Adam, returned). The novelty of, "Hey, that's Andrew McCarthy!" wears off immediately; his excellent performance hangs in the balance between beleaguered and truly sinister.
Hank might not be guilty of hurting Adam, but he might not be completely innocent, either. The two had a close relationship, and there are some eyebrow-raising moments in The Family's first two episodes, but nothing is confirmed. And the more the series can live in this gray area between absolutes — a detective story staple — the more it can distinguish itself from television's crowded pack.
The Family has plenty going for it. The trouble is it's not quite sure when to stop.
The Family has so many story elements to keep track of that its entire structure hinges on making sure you know exactly what's going on at all times — and more often than not, the overly explanatory background info it provides veers away from helpful and more toward overkill.
See, this series isn't just trying to get to the bottom of how and why Adam went missing. It's also telling the stories of what happened to his family in the aftermath of his disappearance, the confusion over his return, Claire's gubernatorial campaign, Hank's readjustment to post-prison life, Nina's determination to finally get the details of the case right, and Danny's suspicions that Adam isn't actually Adam.
Oh, and there's also a whole thing about the local newspaper being mad that the national media is scooping it on all of the above. As a subplot, it's not very good, but it does at least commit to making all the journalists wear sweater vests.
The Family juggles all these storylines by splitting its time between the present and sporadic flashbacks to the year Adam went missing. Then, as if it's sure you can't possibly be keeping up, it'll occasionally throw in a couple flashbacks to a previous scene from the same episode — just in case we need a reminder of what we saw as recently as five minutes ago. To top it all off, sometimes there's even a bit of random voiceover from whichever character feels convenient, just to really drive the point home.
It's a frustrating set of over-explanatory devices. But this sort of structural stumbling block is something many new series struggle with — which makes it the best indicator of how The Family may or may not smooth itself out in future episodes. If the series ultimately gives in to the kind of structural gimmicks that keep its first episodes from moving forward — like the flashbacks upon flashbacks — it could easily collapse in on itself and settle into being a decent, if unremarkable drama. But if it takes a step back, pares down some of those devices, and lets its compelling characters tell the stories, The Family could become something a whole lot more interesting.
The Family premieres Thursday, March 3, at 9 pm on ABC. It will move to its regular time slot of Sundays at 9 pm on March 6.