Representing every parent’s nightmare, abducted, murdered or missing children have become a potent if emotionally manipulative catalyst for TV drama — from “The Killing” and “Broadchurch” to “Secrets and Lies” and “The Missing.” Most closely resembling that last Starz premise, ABC’s “The Family” involves a child’s disappearance throwing a family into chaos, as does his mysterious return a decade later, exposing plenty of secrets and more than a few lies. Distinguished by a top-flight cast, including Joan Allen and Andrew McCarthy, this soap is a slow but reasonably compelling burn, with abundant possibilities wrapped in its opening hours.
ABC is hoping to plant the hook quickly, not just by promoting the premiere during the Oscars but also by introducing the show in “Scandal’s” time slot, followed days later by the second episode in its regular Sunday berth. By then, viewers should have a pretty fair idea of how drawn in they are, or not, by the story of Adam (Liam James), who suddenly vanished, leaving a lot of unanswered questions and suspicions when he unexpectedly turns up.
Like “The Missing,” “The Family” oscillates between two time frames, in the present day finding Claire Warren (Allen) as a politically ambitious mayor looking to run for governor. Her brood includes Claire’s husband (Rupert Graves), who wrote a book about the family’s ordeal; and two kids, an eager-to-please daughter (Allison Pill) and party-boy son (“Friday Night Lights’” Zach Gilford), clearly bearing emotional scars from what transpired.
The web of collateral damage extends beyond the family, too, among them the neighbor (McCarthy) who went to prison for the child’s murder despite the absence of a body — now seemingly exonerated, but still carrying the anger and stigma — and the young detective (“Boardwalk Empire’s” Margot Bingham) who caught the case originally and must now try to decipher what actually happened. (Bingham is fine, but this is another one of those bits of casting that, given her age, makes you think she must have been about 12 when she earned her badge.)
While a certain level of overlap is inevitable, the recent pileup of these shows is such that, as in “Broadchurch,” an unprincipled young female reporter (Floriana Lima) figures in the plot, willing to do pretty much anything to get the story. There’s also an element of the movie “Changeling,” inasmuch as there are subtle differences and lapses in this now-teenage boy, causing his brother, at least, to question whether Adam is who he professes to be.
From a broader perspective, “The Family” comes at an interesting juncture for ABC, which has raised the bar creatively speaking with “American Crime,” while some of its frothier serials are showing signs of wear and tear, both creatively and commercially. At first blush, this effort — created by Jenna Bans, a graduate of ABC’s Shonda Rhimes drama academy, including “Scandal” — would appear to fall somewhere between the two, displaying admirably surprising character beats (or in the eyes of the network’s promo department, “’OMG’ moments”) without as yet demonstrating how it will hold those threads together as the narrative progresses and disgorges more of its central mystery.
Two hours in, “The Family” is thus off to a reasonably good start, without having completely separated itself from Adam’s situation. Because while the show looks the part of a quality drama, it’s too early to say if it’s really the genuine article or just another in a long line of imposters.