No Ordinary Family co-creator Jon Harmon Feldman tells The Craft why his idea for ABC’s new superhero show didn’t come from a childhood fascination with comic books.
Written by Denis Faye
Jon Harmon Feldman isn’t a comic book geek. A surprising fact, considering he’s the co-creator and showrunner of ABC’s No Ordinary Family, a superhero series in which father Michael Chiklis and his brood wake one morning to discovery they’ve all acquired superpowers.
Although his co-creator Greg Berlanti is a diehard fan of the mask-and-spandex set, Feldman’s inspiration came not from the yellowed funny books of his childhood, but rather from his current role as a dad. “I was looking at us as a family and kind of comparing my family to the perfect family down the block, and I said, ‘I wonder what could make my kids, my family, feel as special as I want us to feel?”’ recalls the seasoned TV writer, whose credits include Dawson’s Creek, Tru Calling, and Dirty Sexy Money. “Superpowers became that cure-all, as a metaphor for the fulfillment that I wanted us collectively and as individuals to feel.”
Not willing to believe that Feldman doesn’t possess at least a hint of geekiness, the Writers Guild of America, West Web site grilled him recently about his work on the series. As it turns out, it’s true. The man just isn’t a superhero aficionado. That said, he certainly knows a thing or two about creating them.
With the superhero trend going full-bore right now, how did you go about separating your tale from others?
Oddly enough, for an idea that seems so ungrounded, it was born out of real life. Although it’s a superhero show, it’s really born out of family and a desire of a father to have his family feel as special as he wants them to.
So it’s not just about people breaking stuff and running fast. It’s personal.
Photo: © 2010 American Broadcasting Companies, Inc.
Michael Chiklis in No Ordinary Family.
Yeah. It is personal. The fun of it is that it’s a very external metaphor. The running and the jumping and the real life comic and dramatic complications that come from superpowers are fun things to explore in writing and in a series. But the way we attack it is that we look at these superpowers in the same way we would any large change. You might win the lottery and have it change your life as a blessing and a curse. These superpowers are the same thing. But it’s very much grounded in wish fulfillment and the metaphor of empowerment.
And that’ll keep the show from wandering off into some weird, superpowered la-la land.
Yeah, as odd it this might sound, we try to write it as if, “How would superpowers really affect the family?” It’s sort of a paradoxical sentence because the mere idea of it is somewhat fantastic in terms of the lack of reality to that statement. But we do really try to write it in a very real way. We try to mine all the fun we can, but also the potential pitfalls of this happening.
How do you find the process of writing an action/fantasy series different from the purely character-based things you’ve done?
You just need to be cognizant of a lot more things when you’re putting the show together. As you said, this is part superhero genre show, and it’s part family drama. We try to have as much fun and mine as much drama from the stories as we can. We also have the suspense in terms of the some of the dangers that lurk for budding superheroes. We also have a mythological component as they investigate the source of these powers. There are a lot of different parts, and the goal is to combine these parts so they feel like parts of the same show. The goal is to meld all the tones into one, fun ride.
Do you have certain rules, like a certain amount of set pieces per episode?
We have guidelines more than rules. Every show has ways it tells stories. Every show has their emphasis on what they do. Our goal is to tell the most grounded, but also the most fun, version of our story. We try to move story along, but also know when to stop to play out the dramatic moments that a family drama would provide.
A lot of shows that ask, “How would normal people handle superpowers?” tend to jump the shark pretty quickly. In addition to the things you’ve already mentioned, how are you going to keep from getting too wrapped up in the powers?
We try to look at the series as the first act of a really great superhero movie, [like] the first act of Spiderman say. We never want them to get too good or too advanced in their powers. For us, a lot of the fun and the drama come from them not being so good, not being so proficient at their powers, the sense of learning on the job as they go. Maybe our series will end where a lot of superhero movies begin. We look at it as an origin series and the more we can focus on the sense of discovery and the “real life” complications, we’re on safe ground.
Obviously, it’s seductive to push along the powers as the characters get good at them, but that’s something we’re going to take very, very slowly.
And you think you can do that for 10 seasons?
I’d like to try! Ten years is a long time, but I do think at a certain point, a sense of proficiency will creep in. The goal is to try to provide complications for our characters so they’re still learning and still growing as budding superheroes.
Our series has been compared to The Incredibles a lot. Our series ends where that movie begins. We don’t have a family fighting crime together. That’s something that would probably start when the series ends. Our goal is to keep that sense of wonder. The more we can have fun enjoying how these characters master these powers, but equally how they can’t master them, we’ll be on the same ground.
I wanted to ask about The Incredibles, but I didn’t know quite how to broach the subject.
It’s fine. It’s one of those things that come up a lot for obvious reasons, and I’m always pretty flattered to be compared to something that great. The Incredibles is an amazing piece of film. There are some easy similarities to make between the two shows.
Speaking specifically about the powers, I was curious about your influences. Michael Chiklis, for example, seems inspired by the original Superman, before he could fly.
You know what’s funny, it’s a little heretical to say, but I don’t really come at it as a hardcore comics fan. I have a working knowledge of comics. To me, the powers were really a sense of wish fulfillment, to try to ground it in the deficiencies of the characters. A guy who feels he has no power in his life suddenly becomes powerful. The wife who was pulled between work and home and who feel she needs to be everywhere at once suddenly has the ability to move at a speed where she can be everywhere. The girl who is self-involved and is suddenly burdened by what everyone thinks and has to care about what everyone thinks, the son who has a learning disability who suddenly has this super-intellect.
We came at it from a character sense. There are certainly other superheroes who have similar abilities, but we try to ground it in who they are as people.
So no one in the writer’s room is going to compare an episode to, say, Fantastic Four issue 36.
No, I think it’s absolutely important that we’re cognizant of some of the things that have been tried or done. That’s an important part of the show. The show is many parts, and it’s important we have the voices of those characters in the room and the voices of those genre experts so we can factor that into the mix of family drama and comedy and that stuff.
So if the idea came to you because of your own family, what was Greg’s role?
Greg and I created the story together. We arced out how the family discovered their powers, how any story is broken, the scenes and the parts.
The reason I ask is that, being a nerd, I can tell there’s a nerd at work here.
Greg has an amazing knowledge of comic books. It surprised even me when we started working on it. I looked to him to carry that. And as the series progressed, we worked with other writers. Marc Guggenheim helped out on the pilot. He knows more about comic books than anyone I know. We had those voices on the team that were really instrumental.
You and Greg have been working off-and-on together for years.
If you’re lucky, you get to work with people who challenge you. If I played tennis, this would be a better analogy, but from what I understand, you want to rally with someone who can hit the ball harder back to you then you hit it to them, so they make you play your “A” game every day. That’s how it is with Greg. He’s so talented that it forces you to bring your “A” game. I would like to think we challenge each other to do our best work. That’s the fun of it, in addition to just working with someone you respect and enjoy working with.