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ABC's The Family Might Be Your New Obsession

How it stands out from other missing child thrillers

Joyce Eng

The kid is not all right on The Family.

ABC's new thriller (special premiere Thursday, 9/8c) joins a long line of missing/dead/resurrected child mysteries on TV, let alone on ABC. (Secrets & Lies, Resurrection, anyone?) The titular family is the Warrens, who 10 years ago saw their youngest child, 8-year-old Adam, go missing while matriarch Claire (Joan Allen) was campaigning for City Council. Neighbor Hank (Andrew McCarthy), a sex offender, confessed and was jailed for the presumed murder -- even though a body was never found. Ten years later, as Claire is preparing to run for governor of Maine, a teenage boy (Liam James) emerges from the woods and claims to be Adam. Do we even need to mention that he might not be who he says he is?

The Family comes from Shondaland disciple Jenna Bans (Grey's Anatomy, Private Practice, Off the Map and Scandal), so the dark and twisty DNA is alive and well. As is ABC's go-to framing device for its hit dramas: alternating between past and present timelines. Unlike the pulpy How to Get Away with Murder or Quantico, though, The Family doesn't heavily rely on incessant shockers or preposterous "OMG!" moments to keep you invested. There are salivating twists and reveals, to be sure, but it is far more grounded than that in questioning the things you say and do for your family -- and yourself. The image of the just-reunited full Warren clan during Claire's gubernatorial campaign announcement is worth a thousand words.

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An excellent-as-usual Allen -- fresh off her co-starring role in Room in which she also had a child abducted -- will give you flashbacks to The Contender with her ambitious politician. But Claire's political animal prowess is tempered by a mother's inexorable bond to her child -- one so strong you can understand why she's in denial something might not be totally right with Adam until she gets a wakeup call at the end of the second episode. Her prickly personality is also seen in her polar-opposite interactions with her alcoholic son Danny (Zach Gilford), who is suspicious about Adam from the get-go, and her laser-focused daughter Willa (Alison Pill), also Claire's campaign manager, who might be even more ruthless than Claire. Claire's husband, John (Rupert Graves), who wrote a grief-coping book, has been unfaithful. Nina Meyer (Margot Bingham), who was promoted to sergeant after putting away Hank, is the audience surrogate, as she must not only revisit the case that made her career but re-integrate herself with the family. All of them have secrets that are revealed at a swift pace, along with some answers about who really took Adam.

But the real stars of the series are James and McCarthy. With his hollowed features and shrunken figure, James is fantastically creepy and hardly a doe-eyed innocent. The same can be said for McCarthy's exonerated Hank, who permeates every scene he's in with quiet dread and heartfelt sympathy while delivering such dry, devilish lines like, "I'm the guy who killed you," after he comes face-to-face with Adam for the first time post-release. It's a layered, against-type turn that will never make you look at Blane McDonough the same way again. "I love the way Andrew plays this character and I hope people will feel the same way," Bans tells TVGuide.com. "It's so perfect and sometimes ironic and moving." The best part of the series is when it explores both Adam's and Hank's re-acclimation to society and their homes. Their sense of loneliness and desire to belong, to connect, require no suspension of disbelief.

Not everything clicks right away though. Bingham's youthful appearance makes her solving this case 10 years ago as believable as Jennifer Lawrence playing a 43-year-old mother of teens. A side plot involving reporter Bridey (Floriana Lima), the town paper's "lesbian lifestyle blogger," investigating the Warrens and Adam's return feels slightly tacked on and trite, as does her booze-and-bed tactics with Danny to get scoop. But Bans promises more character development from her. "She has guilt and a conscience. She's not a one-note, evil, manipulative reporter. She definitely has a soul. She's very fun to watch," Bans tells TVGuide.com. "She's just as ambitious as Claire."

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As for the origins of Adam, rest assured that it won't be a case of another tried-and-true trope. "There's definitely not a supernatural element," Bans says. "There is, I would say, a corporate conspiracy. There's never a supernatural element. They're just people doing things for what they feel are for the right reasons at the time. That's the overall feel of the show. We try to understand their reasons and why they did things, which for me are always the best mysteries to watch."

The Family wants to become one of those great mysteries, and after two episodes, it's way too early to say if that will be the case, but at the very least, it's a highly addictive one.

The Family premieres Thursday at 9/8c on ABC. It moves to its regular timeslot on Sunday at 9/8c.