The premiere of The Family is so sensationally entertaining, it may even make you forget this crazy election cycle

By Tom Gliatto
Updated March 03, 2016 09:00 PM
ABC/Giovanni Rufino

If you’re a politician, it never hurts to stand before the public with hand over heart – not just to signal that you’re at the ready to pledge allegiance, but to let voters know that in that soft, concealed spot you harbor a seeping emotional wound.

Consider The Family‘s Claire Warren (Joan Allen), mayor of Red Pines, Maine, and a potential governor. She lost her son Adam (Liam James) a decade ago: He was abducted and murdered by their neighbor. Then Adam turns up, confused but alive. That hand-over-heart can now be raised in a fist of victory: What a miracle! And what a campaign windfall for Claire!

But wait – how was the neighbor wrongfully convicted in the first place? Why does Adam’s sister (Alison Pill), who happens to be Claire’s media strategist, race off to confession, her brow pinched in concern? Why is everyone so preoccupied with a ship in a bottle that was entered into evidence? And is Adam, in fact, Adam?

The premiere of The Family is so sensationally entertaining, it may even make you forget this crazy election cycle.

Oh, who are we kidding? Nothing will accomplish that.

The premise is set up very briskly (bracingly) in the first hour, which manages to make everyone seemed vaguely sympathetic – but, more importantly, vaguely suspect.

Given the walloping, even dizzying string of traumas – the disappearance, presumed death and unexpected resurrection of a child – Family isn’t far removed from Room or even the superb British mystery Broadchurch. If it were any closer, though, all the characters would be in a state of catatonic shock: The grief and stress would flatten them. What seems to have got them up and moving is opportunism, deceit, panic, guilt – the furtive battery juices that spark the engine of wickedness that we keep under the hood.

The performances, vibrating with tautness, are all of a piece with that. Allen, one realizes now, could play a more than decent Medea. Pill, whose pale, nervous girlishness made her a bit of a pain on The Newsroom, is used perfectly here: She’s like a glass of milk, trembling with vibrations felt through the legs of the table.

Finally, special commendations to Andrew McCarthy. He gives a career-redefining performance as that peculiar neighbor, a clammy, unfriendly man not in the mood to forgive or forget. He’s the un-Boo Radley.

The Family begins to unfold during the show’s premiere on ABC this Thursday at 9 p.m. ET; on Sunday, the Warrens will settle into their regular time slot at 9 p.m. ET.