Stay Tuned: Contrived mystery not enough to make ‘The Family’ interesting
The first line of the first episode of “The Family,” the new thriller mystery on ABC, is so predictable I found myself finishing the end of the sentence before the narrator did. Not a good sign. Things went from bad to worse with patience-stretching plot lines and so many predictable moments, I lost count. The story is naturally intriguing but it’s not enough to carry a narrative that has little subtlety or nuance.
A boy, Adam Warren (Liam James), goes missing at age 8 from a campaign event his mother Claire (Joan Allen) is holding in her bid for a city council seat. Willa (Alison Pill) and Danny (Zach Gilford), Adam’s older sister and brother lose track of him and later, Willa says she saw Adam talking to their neighbor Hank Asher (Andrew McCarthy). Hank has a sex-offender conviction and eventually confesses to the boy’s murder, making the career of rookie police officer Nina Meyer (Margot Bingham).
Ten years later, Claire is mayor, about to announce her candidacy for governor, and her husband John (Rupert Graves) is a successful motivational speaker based on his books about grief. Willa is her mother’s campaign manager. Danny is a drunk and Nina is a detective. One day, 18-year-old Adam walks out of the woods and back into all their lives.
But is it Adam? The claim that his DNA is a match for the Warrens’ son is dropped into the story so quickly it’s almost an aside. An intrepid reporter named Bridey Cruz (Floriana Lima) decides to poke around and discovers the doctor who signed off on the report doesn’t exist. In other just-accept-it-and-don’t-ask-questions scenarios, Hank confesses to Adam’s murder but doesn’t tell the family where his body is. Also Nina is such a clever detective that she discovers where Adam was being held in the woods in no time flat one night all by herself.
Then there is a shady man identified only by his pockmarked face, some secret that Willa is keeping about the events, and John and Nina’s affair, which, in a that-would-never-happen scene, they decide to rekindle on top of an interrogation room table at the police station. The script doesn’t help. The wise and mysterious Adam drops a few sentences per episode like philosophical bombs. John says things like: “I’m married to a machine, not a wife.” Performance wise, McCarthy plays Hank as creepy but unhinged would be more interesting. Gilford’s Danny is nothing more than a device for advancing the mystery plot along one suspicious expression at a time.
The emotional impact of the series, primarily felt through Allen’s performance, is mostly effective. She delivers a believable depiction of a mother dealing with the return of a son she thought was dead. But, it’s one small part of a story that is relying on a contrived central mystery to be interesting rather than doing something interesting with a compelling question. Namely, what happens to a family when a lost child returns? Handled with complexity, it’s an intriguing question that I want to find out the answer to but asking it of this particular family leaves me with a different one: “What else is on?”
“The Family” is on Sundays at 9 p.m. EDT on ABC.
— Melissa Crawley is the author of “Mr. Sorkin Goes to Washington: Shaping the President on Television’s ‘The West Wing.’” She has a Ph.D. in media studies and is a member of the Television Critics Association. To comment on Stay Tuned, email her at firstname.lastname@example.org or follow her on Twitter at @MelissaCrawley.