The Family (ABC) puts its central foursome through two hells: the kidnapping and presumed killing of youngest child Adam, then eight-years-old, and his “return” to his parents and siblings a decade later. As suggested in the series premiere, 18-year-old “Adam” (Liam James) isn’t who he claims to be. But his presence in the Warrens’ home, even after his true identity is discovered, turns out to be as convenient as it is cracked, and as comforting as it is catastrophic.
Recent pop-culture takes on sexual captivity — one of the most harrowing and dehumanizing experiences imaginable — have needed a buffer between the audience and the abject grimness of the subject matter. Last year’s Room was seen from the POV of a five-year-old with limited understanding of his circumstances, while Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt has deployed female abduction as a launching pad for feminist and media critiques. The Family is no different, twisting a mystery around the fake Adam’s motives and the Warrens’ possible emotional and political uses for him.
The Family was canceled two weeks ago, but its 12 episodes are well worth checking out as a probing and occasionally fantastic portrait of a half-overcompensatingly-ambitious, half-horrified clan that’s kept too busy to consider how they’ve been mutilated by the biggest trauma of their lives. From midseason on, the show’s reveals become more outlandish, and the curveball in the finale that would set up a theoretical Season 2 is downright disappointing. But for most of its run, it’s a gripping, ethically foggy, and none-too-bleak potboiler, true to its characters’ ordeals and about as dark as a network drama can get.
Adam’s kidnapping cratered the Warrens, and so the pressure is high for his return to refill the hole the family has lived with for the past 10 years. Even without the fake identity angle, that’s a fraught narrative, with family matriarch and rising politician Claire (Joan Allen) and people-pleasing middle child Willa (Alison Pill) determined to do something productive, even inspirational, with their loss and regain. Willa, in particular, is achingly tragic as a precocious little girl who grows up to be both her parents’ eternal child and their hyper-competent minder. In contrast to her dissolute older brother (Zach Gilford), she desexualizes herself by staying in the closet and devotes her life to protecting her mother’s feelings at all costs, unaware of how easily good intentions can pave the way for monstrous acts. Serving as Claire’s press aide during her gubernatorial candidacy, Willa is the driver of the disquieting codependence between mother and daughter.
Claire, on the other hand, probably always had a heart of ice. Arguably the most Joan Allen–ish role that Joan Allen has ever Joan Allen–ed, she’s the stern, self-blinkering march forward made manifest. Claire comforts Adam with all the candy and soft sheets he might want, but when he starts sleeping in the closet because it’s closer to the cramped, underground hole he’s lived in for most of his life, she locks the door to the little room. In the sooty and complicatedly honest moral universe of the show, pain is just as likely to make someone less empathetic as the other way around. Claire’s one of those people, unwilling to endure hurt anymore even if it means wounding others in the process. She’s unhesitant about exploiting her family’s misfortunes for a bump in the polls and confident in putting others in their place. “You wouldn’t believe how many women take their panties off for the dad who lost his son,” she tells the detective (Margot Bingham) who had an affair with her husband, John (Rupert Graves). Their marriage is all but over, but divorce is one more agony she won’t abide.
The Family doesn’t flinch from the horror of sexual captivity, but it does focus on the creativity necessary to survive. Midway through the season, “Adam” is revealed to be Ben, another boy kidnapped by Adam’s victimizer (Michael Esper). In their hole, Ben conjures dishes in his mind — he plans to be a chef when he grows up — and daydreams of all the places he’ll travel to when he gets out. His “homecoming” to the Warrens’, too, is a kind of survival. His ruse is cruel, and yet it’s hard to blame him for his decisions — any family sounds better than no family, at least from the outside.