Where ABC's The Family did not invoke confidence, BBC America's Thirteen proves that a show set around a missing child's return can be enthralling.
Cast-wise, ABC’s The Family was impressive. Starring Joan Allen (Room), Rupert Graves (Sherlock), Zach Gilford (Friday Night Lights), Alison Pill (Scott Pilgrim vs. The World) and Andrew McCarthy (Pretty in Pink), the show aired mid-season for twelve episodes before the network announced its cancellation in May.
Having stuck it out for a pilot and a half, every show needs a few attention-grabbing hooks. The problem with The Family was it was all hooks, no answers, and a lot of frustrating characters.
Ten years after Adam Warren’s disappearance, a young boy claiming to be him has come forward (Liam James). His family—father (Graves), mother (Allen) and older sister, Willa (Pill)—are overjoyed. Older brother, Danny (Gilford) doesn’t think it’s him. Yet if his parents don’t share his concerns, they have their reasons. Mom’s using Adam for election votes, Dad’s having an affair with the lead cop on the investigation, and Willa? She’s just feeling guilty.
Why It Didn’t Work
Rather than trust the drama inherent in a story on this subject, the show continuously added twists without establishing the characters first. That meant even if the intention was to be soapier, with big plot leaps, there was never enough investment in what happened to anybody to make the stakes payoff. McCarthy, as suspect and next door neighbor, Hank, came closest to broaching sympathy, but even love-to-hate was hard to muster for any of the Warrens.
A Different Approach
BBC America’s new miniseries, Thirteen, takes the same premise of The Family (thirteen is the number of years Ivy Moxam (Jodie Comer) was missing before escaping captivity) and grounds it in the emotional resonance of how she and her family cope with trying to find normal again.
Why It Works
First, they get rid of the distraction of whether or not Ivy is who she says she is. Like Danny, Ivy’s younger sister, Emma (Katherine Rose Morley) initially has her reservations. Once DNA tests confirm her as a match, however, all questions about identity are dropped. No conspiracy theories (see The Family). Only conclusive science and, later, when Ivy starts to talk more, shared references to candies fought over and clapping games played. Never taking attention away from the Moxam’s recovery, the show is stronger and smarter for the focus.
Second, while the Moxam’s and their acquaintances are flawed, they are also human. Mom (Natasha Little), fearful of losing her daughter again, becomes overly possessive, while dad (Stuart Graham) returns home from his affair. Tim (Aneurin Barnard), Ivy’s childhood boyfriend, struggles to tell her he’s married. The weight of the last thirteen years is evident in their behavior. Their likability is not always immune, but they come from places of good intention and that means something. It also means Ivy has a lot of to adjust to and the struggle of that change is given its proper attention.
The show isn’t completely free of melodrama: Ivy’s kidnapper has taken another young girl, and with Ivy’s interviews both conflicting and vague, the pressure is on detectives to find her. Nonetheless, the case doesn’t take prominence or undercut the family’s story. If anything it goes to show how difficult, to outright impossible, it will be for them to put this all behind them. Thirteen may not make for light viewing, but it is a powerfully engaging look at the difficulties that come with reunion, even as the dominant emotion is relief to have the family back together.
New Episodes Thursday’s at 10 PM EST [Special Time: 7/14 at 6 PM EST]
Also Watch: Room, Starz’s The Missing