Shows that hit the airwaves as midseason series can be more hit or miss that usual, and even those that seem particularly promising can flop due to a bad pilot. Fortunately for ABC, the all-important first episode for new drama The Family served up plenty of well-crafted mystery and intrigue. The show feels fresh enough that it stands out as something more nuanced than a typical crime drama, but it's also familiar in the very best way.
The Family pilot presents dual narratives intercut throughout the hour. The first is set ten years in the past and follows the Warren family after youngest child Adam (Maxwell James) disappears. Siblings Willa (Madeleine Arthur) and Danny (Rarmian Newton) must deal with the loss of their brother while parents Claire (Joan Allen) and John (Rupert Graves) face the prospect of never getting their son back. The second narrative picks up on the Warren family in the present. Claire is the mayor, with Willa (Alison Pill) as an advisor, while John is distant from the family, and Danny (Zach Gilford) has never recovered from Adam’s disappearance. But when Adam (Liam James) turns up alive, Detective Nina Meyer (Margot Bingham) must reopen his case when she realizes that the wrong man (Andrew McCarthy) was convicted. Reporter Bridey Cruz (Floriana Lima), meanwhile, schemes for a scoop.
Pilots are notoriously shaky as they must prioritize exposition and introduction over anything else. In the case of The Family, however, the dual narrative structure allowed the episode to be a fantastic hour of television without any of the weaknesses of typical series premieres. Exposition was incorporated into the dialogue organically without giving the sense that the characters were speaking to the audience to dump as much information as possible.
Creator Jenna Bans is a veteran of ShondaLand thanks to work as a producer and writer for Grey’s Anatomy. Her experience working with Shonda Rhimes shows in the Family pilot. There’s a balance between procedural, political, and personal as the focus is split between the Warren family and the criminal investigation into Adam’s case.
Writing and structure aside, the real strength of the Family pilot was in the cast. The show amassed an ensemble of phenomenal actors who pretty perfectly embody their characters. Even the kids cast to play the younger versions of the main characters look enough like their adult counterparts that the Warren family dynamic works in the past as well as in the present. For the most part, the performers manage to create drama without falling into melodrama and overacting.
The star of the pilot was definitely Joan Allen as Claire. There are shades of black and white in her performance that turn Claire into somebody relatable despite the extraordinary circumstances and the questionable decisions that she makes in the aftermath. Claire goes from stay-at-home mom distributing flyers to a political powerhouse, and Allen is believable in both roles. Allison Pill as the older Willa was a surprise standout when she infused some ambiguity into a role that could have been one-note, and Zach Gilford as Danny brought a rawness that grounded the Warren family scenes.
A couple of the actors did fall comparatively short. Unfortunately, Liam James plays the older Adam a bit too woodenly. The element of mystery is present as far as whether or not this young man who turned up is actually the same person as the boy who disappeared, but there’s something robotic about the performance that didn’t quite work. Margot Bingham was adequate as Nina Meyer, but her character feels more like a typical procedural cop who cares too much than a unique individual. For his part, Rupert Graves was solid, but he’ll need some meatier material to stand on equal ground with Joan Allen.
The story moved at a pace that neither rushed nor dragged, but a sideplot between John and Nina could have been lifted right out without hurting the episode at all. It felt as though it was included for the sake of checking off a certain box on a pilot order, and while it certainly didn’t ruin the episode, it could have at least been understated.
All in all, The Family pilot was a pretty great hour of television. The episode does feel somewhat like a bizarre crossover of Making a Murderer and Twin Peaks with a touch of House of Cards. But it takes what was best about those shows and incorporates them into one that could be just as compelling.
The Family premieres on Thursday at 9 p.m. ET on ABC before moving to Sundays at 9 p.m. ET.