“The Family” is yet another lukewarm addition to ABC’s roster of drama series. The new series premiered in “Scandal” ’s usual 9 p.m. slot on Thursday, but pales in comparison to the hit series. It follows the Warren family, whose youngest son Adam (Liam James, “The Way Way Back”) returns after being kidnapped and presumed dead a decade earlier. Adam’s mysterious return complicates the host of problems that already divide the family, who haven’t yet completely pieced themselves together after being shattered by Adam’s disappearance and presumed death.
The series introduces Adam’s story through Detective Nina Meyer (Margot Bingham, “Boardwalk Empire”), who, based on loose circumstantial evidence, wrongly accused the Warrens’ neighbor Hank (Andrew McCarthy, “Lipstick Jungle”) of murdering Adam. Even without a thorough knowledge of the justice system, anyone would be left questioning how on Earth Detective Meyer oversaw Hank’s legally baseless conviction and got promoted for it. Our confusion is echoed when she expresses her guilt to Adam’s father, John (Rupert Graves, “Sherlock”), whose flat character gets thrown a bone with a horribly imprudent affair with Meyer.
Just when we begin to feel bad for John, cast to the side by his wife Claire’s (Joan Allen, “The Killing”) political ambitions, he uses an affair with the detective assigned to his son’s case as an outlet for his emotional frustration. Bad call, John. Not only does the show hint that their romantic history goes back to when Adam first went missing, but it also paints an even more unforgiving portrait of Meyer’s ethical failure and incompetence.
While the show’s narrative is told from Meyer’s point of view, her relentless drive to find Adam’s actual captor is more a reflection of her attempt to conceal her inadequacies than it is of some higher moral functioning. It doesn’t help that her character’s callous “tough cop” attitude is nothing more than a thinly-veiled attempt to overcompensate for the lingering insecurities from her rookie cop days. Even if she wasn’t a flawed cop struggling with her shortcomings, her misguided affair with the father of victim whose case she’s responsible for is self-indulgently stupid.
Aside from Detective Meyer and the pitiable John, there are plenty of flawed characters to go around, though their faults scarcely hold our interest. What little prominence the show’s creators probably hoped Joan Allen would bring to the series is dulled by her characterization as a cold robot that prioritizes her career over her family. It’s 2016. Why is a woman with a career being characterized as a calculative robot just because she wants to pursue her political ambitions in spite the hardships she and her family have faced?
Claire’s characterization is somewhat ameliorated by Allen’s poignant performance when reunited with her son. However, after the emotional reunion, the particularities of welcoming back a teenage boy who has been held captive for 10 years are quickly swept under the rug. Even Detective Meyer’s incessant questioning of Adam immediately following his return is abruptly ended when his parents get uncomfortable hearing his answers. Even though the entire series is centered around Adam’s disappearance, it appears to tiptoe around the subject and replace more appropriately plaintive scenarios with half-baked drama.
Aside from the show’s problematic inability to consolidate Claire’s family life with her professional life, its subplots are lazily strung together in an effort to generate suspense. Adam’s return –– while an interesting premise for the show –– arouses more anxiety than relief when his alcoholic brother Danny (“Zach Gilford, “Friday Night Lights”) suspects it isn’t really Adam who has returned. His sister Willa (Alison Pill, “The Newsroom”) and mother quickly dismiss Danny, who’s drowned his guilt for leaving his brother unattended 10 years ago in alcohol, and his suspicions. The only information we’re given about his history of drinking is his family’s hostility towards him, making their interactions even more jarring and uncomfortable.
When a young reporter, whose history with Danny dates back to Adam’s kidnapping, convinces her boss to let her pursue the story, she comes back empty-handed. Well, not exactly, but she oversteps her authority in the matter, claiming she’s going to get “the real story.” Whatever that’s supposed to mean. But we’re left speculating that it has something to do with Danny’s cold reception of Adam, so there may be some potential for a narrative of substance to actually develop. If the seasoned cast’s talents are put to use as more fully developed characters, rather than the dramatic tropes they are assigned, then “The Family” might actually have a chance.