When someone experiences a catastrophic event and does a complete personality U-turn, do you ever wonder if it’s entirely because of the trauma or was the dark side always there in the first place?
That’s the question viewers may ask themselves about the anti-heroine of the new ABC drama “The Family,” premiering Thursday, before moving to its regular Sunday slot on March 6.
Claire Warren (Joan Allen) is a young mom about to put her toe in the water of politics when we first meet her. She’s tentative, shy, not particularly ambitious and seems grateful for the support of her husband, John (Rupert Graves). The Warrens’ three kids are off doing what kids will do at a local fair and picnic while mom and dad hand out fliers asking voters to support Claire’s campaign for school board.
Then, the unthinkable happens, every parent’s nightmare: Young Adam disappears. One minute, he is beneath a picnic table working on his hobby, making a ship in a bottle. The next minute, he is gone.
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The next ten years take their toll on the Warren family. Claire is now the mayor and about to run for governor. Their elder son Danny (Zach Gilford) is an alcoholic womanizer. Daughter Willa (Alison Pill), is a tightly wound political operative for her mother. Claire and John are together only for public display. Behind closed doors, theirs is barely a marriage. To say Claire is consumed by ambition is simplistic. She has become single-minded, ruthless and cold.
We know how she could go from a timid first-time candidate to a calculating political robot: She has lost her son and everyone believes he was murdered by their neighbor Hank (Andrew McCarthy) who is in prison for the presumed crime.
But what if Adam wasn’t murdered? What if he is alive and suddenly turns up, a 19-year-old (Liam James) who has been held captive and regularly molested for the last decade?
That’s only the basic set-up for this well-plotted thriller created by Jenna Bans, a former writer for “Scandal.” Adam’s disappearance was the trigger for events and character changes a decade ago, but his sudden return has an even greater impact on everyone in the Warren family.
Only an actress of Allen’s calibre could make Claire’s wide character arc credible. It’s not just that she has to make us believe that the shy, tentative Claire could become a political monster – she also has to suggest that perhaps that level of fierce ambition was inside her all along. Allen does that and more. Claire is right up there with the kind of complex women Shonda Rhimes and her writers have created in “Scandal” and “How To Get Away With Murder.”
Gilford, Pill and Graves are also at the top of their game embodying the toll Adam’s disappearance and supposed murder has taken on their respective characters. As the older children, Danny and Willa should have been looking out for their brother back at the town picnic. Their haunting guilt has severely damaged them as adults, but in different ways.
James is the enigmatic center of the drama. What happened to him ten years before and why didn’t he escape earlier? More to the point, though, there’s something a bit off about him, and that adds yet another layer of mystery to the story.
The series’ exploration of both the nature of a family, the personal demons of its members and how trauma can trigger continuing tragedy make “The Family” a worthy addition to ABC’s Thursday night drama lineup.
“The Family” premieres at 9 p.m. Thursday on ABC and moves to its normal Sunday timeslot on March 6