Flush with the high-caliber success of "American Crime," ABC now presents "The Family," a multilayered exploration of the personal and political fallout from the appearance of a child 10 years after he vanished and a man confessed to his murder.
Between its dramatic conceit and its breathtaking cast, which includes Joan Allen, Andrew McCarthy, Rupert Graves and Alison Pill, "The Family" would seem to have it all.
Except, perhaps, the right platform. Given the intensity of the subject matter, "The Family" might have been better served by the slower, mood-saturated tendencies of cable.
As with BBC America's "Broadchurch," "The Family" looks to expose the far-reaching affects of a single crime and the many secrets an investigation reveals. But where "Broadchurch" took its time, established normalcy before smashing it, used location and mood as effectively as its equally fine cast, the first two hours of "The Family" follows the distinctly broadcast-network pace of "make something big happen on every third page."
Which would be fine, if the details of the tale were not so grim.
If you are going to use even the notion of a child imprisoned, tortured and raped for 10 years as the linchpin of your story, you really do need to give your characters, and your audience, a reasonable amount of time to acknowledge and come to terms with the horror. To rush them, as creator Jenna Bans does in the first two hours of "The Family," not only diminishes the drama, it makes the heinous details seem manipulative.
From the moment Adam Warren (Liam James) stumbles out of the wilderness, bloody and dazed, "The Family" seems far more concerned with the dimensions of its mystery than the nature of its crime.
In quick succession, we see the icy control and self-absorption of Adam's mother Claire (Allen), now mayor of fictional Red Pines, Maine, and her tattered marriage to John (Graves), who translated the loss of his son into a career writing grief-counseling books. At Claire's right hand is daughter/press secretary Willa (Pill), the anxiously quivering Good Child attempting to balance the disruption of her slacker-drunk brother, Danny (Zach Gilford).
The story's ambitions and promise run even broader. Sgt. Nina Meyer (Margot Bingham), promoted solving the Warren case, must cope with the fact that she not only left Adam to suffer, she helped put an innocent man in jail.
That would be Hank (McCarthy), a registered sex offender who lived across the street from Adam and eventually confessed to his murder.
By centering her story on a living victim, Bans, to her great credit, takes on a higher degree of difficulty than any murder mystery. The dead, after all, require nothing save justice, while Adam, who may or may not actually be Adam, is clearly in need of all sorts of help.
Strangely, aside from a cursory visit from a therapist, the Warrens do not appear to know this. "Back to normal" is the modus operandi; mere days after escaping from a decade-long imprisonment in a small space, Adam is trotted off, in the care of his openly doubtful brother, to the mall.
Denial is one thing, simple psychology quite another.
Much more believable is Hank's return to the remains of his life. Stalked by his own rage and something, perhaps, even darker, Hank is as big a mystery as Adam, but McCarthy allows him the tics and reactions of a man coming to grips with sudden freedom. The power of the performance quickly makes Hank, intentionally or not, the most interesting character in the show.
Obviously, many things set up in the early hours of "The Family" will be knocked down or rearranged as the series progresses, and with performers as strong as these, the Warrens will surely become increasingly human.
Still, even the best performers need time to pause and room to spread out. For "The Family" to become the deep and nuanced character drama it clearly wants to be, everyone needs to take a breath, perhaps join a support group, and slow the heck down.
When: 9 p.m. Thursday
Rating: TV-PG-LS (may be unsuitable for young children, with advisories for coarse language and sex)