Just when I was ready to give up on No Ordinary Family, the show pulls out its best episode yet, full of deepening mythology, effective humor, strong conflicts, likable characters, and, most shockingly of all, some very smart writing.
Let me be perfectly clear - if you stopped watching No Ordinary Family (and I can't really blame you), then watch "No Ordinary Mobster." This episode is the dramatic improvement I've been waiting for, as the show seemingly fixes every single one of its biggest problems in a single hour. Until this week, the show was slightly sub-par disposable entertainment. Now? Well, it still isn't a thought-provoking classic, but I could see this soon becoming one of the most entertaining hours of television out there, assuming it keeps improving like this.
This is probably the first episode in which all four of the family members' plots actually work. The Jim story this week was really a George story, as George draws the ire of a mob lieutenant he almost managed to convict. As a reprisal, George's fellow DA and potential love interest (played by the always welcome Amy Acker) gets shot, for which George blames himself. Against George's wishes, Jim concocts a plan to catch the mobster red-handed, but his face is clearly seen during his superheroics. Now the mobster attempts to beat the wrap by threatening to identify Jim and expose the presence of a superpowered cop. That leaves George in the unenviable position of choosing between justice and protecting his friend.
Both the kids' stories revolved around why love kind of sucks. One of Daphne's most desirable male friends breaks up with his girlfriend, and Daphne starts tentatively pursuing him. She goes with him to an art museum in order to impress him with her knowledge of modern art, only it's actually a nearby J.J. who is thinking all her pithy observations for her. Not that J.J. is doing much better - he accepts tutoring from Katie only to discover how much help she needs in finding someone to date. In keeping with the episode's theme of questionable plans, he borrows a move from an early Simpsons episode and poses as the perfect online lover, only to break her heart when she invites him to dinner in person.
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As usual, Stephanie has to deal with most of the mythology-related material. Evil Stephen Collins officially warns her about looking into the late Dr. Volson, a former employee of her company who may also have developed superpowers. She ignores the warning and heads down to Mexico to find the dead doctor's paraplegic widow, who explains they did indeed once have powers until they faded away and destroyed their lives. But all is not what it seems...
Let's start with the mythology stuff, because I'm guessing that's what most of us are interested in. This episode hit a nice balance between resolving old mysteries and posing new questions. Evil Stephen Collins is finally suspicious of Stephanie, and his henchman the Watcher is starting to put two and two together and realize it was Jim that he saw a couple episodes back. It's nice to see the villains not be total idiots about the obviously superpowered people in their midst, which has been a problem in previous episodes.
The episode had a couple good twists and turns - I particularly liked the Watcher unexpectedly sitting down for dinner with Katie - that demonstrated much smarter plotting than what we've seen before. I'll admit they didn't always make a ton of logical sense if you really thought them through. Exactly why Dr. King paid off Volson's widow (assuming that was really his widow) to pretend to be paralyzed doesn't quite make total sense at this point - after all, the widow admits powers exist when there's no reason to think Stephanie already knows that - but it's a cool moment, so I'm willing to wait and see on that one. Honestly, it's just nice to see the show pull off confident little moments like the widow casually walking away from her wheelchair.
I've generally praised the humor on this show, if only because it was the one thing that saved some episodes from sliding into outright disaster. Here, however, the wit was dialed up another couple notches, with much better crafted one-liners that actually managed to sound like what real people might say. The episode was also much savvier about people's powers. Daphne in particular had a bunch of great moments: lying to help George sell his surprise at the party, extorting J.J. for help by threatening to end his privacy forever, and reacting with understandable disgust at what J.J. was thinking about with regards to Katie.
There was also the quietly touching moment at the end where she learned her object of desire was getting back with his ex, even though he was thinking he had made a mistake...and she did nothing. Her decision not to abuse her powers was a nice progression from what we've seen before, and it worked even better because we didn't have to listen to a minute-long speech explaining it.
"No Ordinary Mobster" even managed to work in a theme or two. As I suggested earlier, everybody's plot revolves around them using their powers in questionable ways. None of what they do is wrong, but a lot of it is unwise - Jim showing his face to a mobster, Stephanie racing to Mexico without considering what others might be up to, Daphne impressing a boy under false pretenses, and J.J.'s truly bizarre plan to make Katie feel better. (Seriously, what the hell was his endgame with that? Actually, considering what Daphne saw in his head, I probably don't want to know.)
Daphne was the only person who didn't put somebody in harm's way through their actions - Jim potentially endangered George and his family, Stephanie definitely endangered her family, and J.J. toyed with Katie's emotions (albeit with the best of intentions) and placed her a position to be used by the Watcher...which probably endangers everybody. And again, none of this was spelled out, which was refreshing. You can enjoy the episode just fine without thinking about any of this stuff - I certainly didn't think about any of this the first time I watched it through - but it's wonderful to see the show get some depth.
Most of my quibbles with this episode have more to do with earlier episodes failing to adequately set up what happens here. I'm thrilled to see Amy Acker on the show, but she did sort of feel like a quickly introduced character who is very important but we've never heard of before just so her sudden shooting has more meaning. As such, I would have liked to see her in an earlier episode before so quickly putting her in hospital. I had similar feelings about Katie's sudden men problems and Daphne's crush (who we only saw once before on the show) - a little setup for this would have been nice. All this is churlish, really - the show had to get good somehow, and if that meant adding in stuff previous episodes hadn't been good enough to include, I'm not going to criticize this episode.
"No Ordinary Mobster" is a hugely entertaining hour of TV. It's well-written, well-acted, well-directed...well-everythinged, really. It may not have the dramatic heft of other shows on TV - in fact, I know it doesn't - but on its own terms, this episode provides the blueprint for how No Ordinary Family could evolve into must-watch TV. For the first time in a very long time, I'm legitimately excited to see what's coming next week.