The most important thing to know about The Family is that it’s created by Jenna Bans, a former ShondaLand writer. That’s shorthand for saying the new drama series is completely on-brand for ABC and its primetime focus of twisted dramas full of secrets, flashbacks, more secrets, and probably some murder. In this case, the murder didn’t happen — maybe — but there are many things that both set The Family apart from How to Get Away with Murder, Scandal, Quantico, and also show how closely it plans to follow their formulas.
The Family focuses on the Warrens, whose son Adam went missing when he was eight years old, before seemingly escaping and returning to them over a decade later. The show wants to have its cake and eat it too when it comes to these two dramatic events, so viewers are propelled back and forth through time to experience where the family was on the day Adam went missing (and the fallout from that), as well as the complicated emotions that go in to his return. (The primary question being whether he really is Adam).
The Warrens are led by matriarch Claire (Joan Allen, in her first broadcast appearance), an ambitious Republican politician who is looking to run for bigger things. Her husband, John (Sherlock‘s charming Rupert Graves, with an unfortunately wavering accent here) meanwhile has a wandering eye, and has also made his name speaking on the grief counseling circuit. Adam’s older siblings Willa (The Newsroom‘s Alison Pill) and Danny (Friday Night Lights‘ Zach Gilford) are opposites of each other, with Willa as a mini-me of her mother — driven, even a little ruthless, a perfectionist — and Danny as a burnout who can’t get his life on track. All have secrets, and by Episode 2, all are starting to reveal them and turn on one another (helped along, naturally, by a super-shady journalist, played by Floriana Lima).
Though the Warrens have all been deeply affected by what happened to Adam in their own unique ways, The Family also explores the plight of the Warren’s neighbor Hank (Andrew McCarthy), a sex offender who spent a decade in jail for Adam’s murder. But as unfolds quickly, Adam appears to be alive, and questions about why Hank confessed to a crime he didn’t commit, as well as the integrity of the original investigation (led by Margot Bingham’s Nina Meyer), and what kind of relationship Hank had with Adam in the first place, start piling up.
Then there’s Adam himself, or whomever he truly is. The returning boy, at any rate, is played in a creepy, distant, dreamy manner by Liam James, in a way that portrays a young man who has certainly been through some dark times, whether or not he is who he says he is. The Family does an excellent job in its premiere of laying out the case for both sides of the truth, as the Warrens at first embrace and then question that this is truly their son. But where the series really seems to define itself is in the juxtaposition between Adam and Hank’s homecomings. They both are wrestling with questions of truth, assimilation, recovery, and much more. McCarthy, playing far against type, gives Hank an incredible amount of nuance. His performance, alongside James, anchors the series in a way that makes it run deeper than the typical hallmarks of a breezy primetime soap.
Ultimately, The Family could have, and maybe should have, stuck solely to the present day to tell its story, because that’s where it’s the most compelling and fascinating. The flashbacks help to shortcut narrative reveals, but they don’t show anything that couldn’t frankly be guessed (at least at this point), and the child actors just multiple the players in an already very full cast. And while its serious tone and slightly less-frantic pace in general lend it some weight, one wonders about whether it’s built to last, since so many of ABC’s other mystery-laden, flashback-friendly dramas burn out so quickly.
At the TCA Winter Press Tour, journalists were assured that The Family plans to answer the question of Adam’s truth sooner than later (whether or not he is who he says he is), which is a good thing. It’s central to the show’s opening episodes, but it’s also a fixation that could end up leaving viewers more irritated than engaged if it’s dragged out for too long. It remains to be seen, though, if the other mysteries that replace it end up being as compelling, or if the show would have been better off just sticking to being a traditional family drama.
So far, The Family seems to be setting up another potentially obsession-worthy mystery series for fans of ABC’s other, similar dramas, but having only seen two episodes (and the second is a little too repetitive of the first), it’s hard to know how well it can hold on to that spark in the long run. The series isn’t necessarily equipped to deal with the true emotional ramifications of its story of kidnap as well as, say, Starz’s harrowing miniseries The Missing, but it doesn’t just gloss over them, either. It gives some actual time to the grief and confusion following such a horrifying event, and yet, does its best work in how that grief can become supplanted by suspicion and alienation after Adam returns. That layered storytelling, presented in such an undeniably catchy way, makes The Family yet another strong entry to ABC’s primetime arsenal. But whether it can pivot into something even greater remains to be seen.
Rating: ★★★ Good — Proceed with cautious optimism
The Family premieres Thursday, March 3rd on ABC before settling in to its regular timeslot on Sunday nights starting March 6th.