Friday, June 3, 2016

Grating Expectations: ABC's The Family

Rupert Graves, Liam James, and Joan Allen in The Family on ABC.

You can usually tell when a movie is bad in about the first half-hour. But how can you be sure when a television series has suddenly turned turtle? I lasted only a few episodes into the first season of Fear the Walking Dead, the spin-off to AMC's The Walking Dead, which depicted the zombie apocalypse beginning to grip LA. It seems the writers and producers wanted us to believe that there was no news media (or social media) even covering it. As we witness the carnage and mayhem of flesh-eaters pawing for their next victim, nobody once turned on a radio, a television set, or even checked their Twitter (or Facebook) feed to find out what's going on. I decided then that the writers didn't know what was going on either and I bailed. Yet no one seemed to care if the world of Fear the Walking Dead appeared fake. It went on to become a huge hit that's just finished its second season. The lack of a believable society with coherent character development didn't seem to matter to viewers or critics – as long as we could sit happily in dread waiting out the suspense for the next bit of chomping. A terrible movie can be shaken most times minutes after you leave the theatre. But a bad television show can linger for weeks because you probably invested far more time hoping for the best. Perhaps that's why viewers often bring such lowered expectations to television. It lessens the blow if things go bad. As Bob Dylan once said, "If you ain't got nothing, you got nothing to lose."

Movies generally have about two hours to make their case, but a TV show has to create a narrative that holds you for weeks. To do that, a series needs to build momentum in the plotting to keep the viewer in a state of continuous anticipation. The narrative therefore doesn't grow out of the characters' motivations – it's more often the other way around. And it can come at the expense of dramatic credibility. Unlike many other viewers, I just couldn't believe the premise of Breaking Bad, where an unassuming high school chemistry teacher with the luck of Job finds out that life can be much worse when he's diagnosed with terminal lung cancer. The show's solution of turning him into a meth dealer out of financial desperation seemed too self-consciously imposed on the character. To me, it did nothing more than create a running motor for a downward spiraling vortex where Walter White (Bryan Cranston) gets pulled into a life of criminality for the sake of the family (rather than convincingly demonstrating why this was his only option). In Dexter, the moralism got even thicker. The program's creators turn their detective serial killer into someone who kills only those who are worse than him so that viewers can be spared being implicated in the darkness of his psychopathy. What makes something like The Americans such a compelling series drama is that in finding a precarious balance between character drama and plot momentum (a gift that The Sopranos also shared) they came to challenge and complicate our notions of right and wrong rather than boiling things down to 'the dark side of human nature.'

But if Breaking Bad and Dexter still got by in the compelling confines of their suspense plots, ABC's The Family devises new ways of falling to pieces in just telling a story. After missing for a decade, the young son of a mayor in Maine, Claire Warren (Joan Allen), returns home. Adam Warren (Liam James) is initially greeted with joy and relief by the clan who assumed he'd been kidnapped and murdered by a local pedophile (Andrew McCarthy). In the days after his return, however, suspicions arise about his true identity and whether forces of betrayal and corruption have placed an impostor in the family home conveniently at the moment when Claire is about to run for governor. Before the idiocies in the plot turn The Family into inadvertent camp, the notion of having a child return to his home after being presumed dead for years was novel. Often we get stories of how families cope with their enduring loss, but seldom on what the effects might be if their wishes came true and they ultimately come home. The one interesting dramatic idea gets torpedoed by a series of melodramatic plot twists that defy belief.

Andrew McCarthy in The Family. (Photo: Jack Rowand)

Claire's daughter, Willa (Alison Pill), is the press coordinator for her campaign. She knows that the boy who has returned is not her younger sibling. So in order to see that her mother is elected (and to help salve the grief her parent still feels over her lost son), she contrives DNA tests in order to fake his identity. You would think that the desire to catch the perpetrator would be foremost in her mind, but Willa turns out to be a devout Catholic girl who is rigidly expedient about the wholesomeness of the family unit. But she also has a secret  life – as a closet lesbian. Alison Pill is about as convincing being in the closet as Elisabeth Röhm was inhabiting hers as the assistant DA in Law & Order, but she is even less believable running a political campaign. Given that her mother is a Republican running on the platform of family values, it's a huge howler that it takes an ambitious local reporter, Bridey Cruz (Floriana Lima), setting out to uncover the deception, to easily get Willa rolling in the hay with her. But the bad writing doesn't stop there. Adam's abductor, Doug Anderson (Michael Esper), not only continues to kidnap and confine children, he's also about to have a child with his girlfriend, Jane (Zoe Perry), who initially seems oblivious to his extra-curricular activities. When a smart FBI agent, Gabe Clements (Matthew Lawler), catches on and tries to bring Jane in for questioning about her partner, she clobbers him with a frying pan and confines him in a root cellar. (Who knew Maine had so much storage space?)

If the twists and turns of the plot aren't bad enough in The Family (and I've only given you a small taste), the acting just amplifies the calamity. Joan Allen must think she is still playing Pat Nixon because if her face isn't an impenetrable stone wall, she's consistently drowning in hysterics. When she finally discovers that her son may be some other kidnapped boy, Allen doesn't give you a sensible clue as to why Claire caves to Willa's deception except out of political ambition. She doesn't even show a maternal concern that some other parents might be out there sharing the same agony over the lost son she's currently housing. Her husband, John (Rupert Graves), who has been carrying on an affair with the investigating detective, Nina Meyer (Margot Bingham), also doesn't add much to the drama. He comes across as more of a lodger than a husband. Graves has so little to play that when he does show up he looks as if he accidentally stumbled in from some other show.

Andrew McCarthy's pedophile (who lives conveniently across the road and seems to only draw attention from the Warrens as if no one else in the neighbourhood knows he's there), has some of the same tics and mannerisms he demonstrated in films like Pretty in Pink and Less Than Zero. You can't help but notice him from scene to scene. Yet even though it's no secret that we're not watching a harrowing performance on the order of Peter Lorre's sex offender in M, or even Jackie Earle Haley's tragic abuser in the otherwise execrable Little Children, McCarthy still manages to do some of his best acting in scenes where he attempts to bring the true perpetrator to justice. The highly talented Zac Gilford, who found huge depths of empathy as the high school quarterback in Friday Night Lights, plays the oldest son Danny, who wallows in remorse as the resident alcoholic.While the role is ridiculously conceived, Gilford manages to somehow underplay the melodrama to create some form of recognizable human behavior. Gilford helps us see that Danny's drinking comes not just from guilt, but from a self-loathing that grows out of Danny's innate intelligence. His masochism comes from his refusing to trust his instincts. Matthew Lawler also brings some wit to his role as the FBI agent (even if he's saddled with some of the worst scenes in the series – especially one where from his trussed up state in the fruit cellar he helps Jane through the birth of her child). Unfortunately, Liam James as the fake "Adam Warren" is all mood and mystery without a shred of the hidden pockets of terror that should be lurking in an abused boy.

Even as terrible as The Family was, I endured it for the whole season. (A second season is, thankfully, not forthcoming.) While it was much, much worse than shows I did abandon like Fear the Walking Dead and Breaking Bad, I hung in for the kind of perverse reasons you get glued to bad TV. Sometimes a show gets so much better than you expected, like Invasion or Surface, that you reach peaks of great satisfaction that grow out of surprise. But then there's a show that gets so much worse than you thought possible that you stay with it, as if wondering whether it will reach depths of stupidity so profound that your disbelief ends up turning into a twisted form of pleasure. The pleasure wrought from The Family was just about as twisted as it can get.

Kevin Courrier is a freelance writer/broadcaster, film critic and author (Dangerous Kitchen: The Subversive World of Zappa, Randy Newman's American Dreams, 33 1/3 Captain Beefheart's Trout Mask Replica, Artificial Paradise: The Dark Side of The Beatles Utopian Dream). Courrier teaches part-time film courses to seniors through the LIFE Institute at Ryerson University in Toronto and other venues. His forthcoming book is Reflections in the Hall of Mirrors: American Movies and the Politics of Idealism.

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