Across the Aisle: The Family, Political Entertainment for the Age of Hillary

Jim Hemphill finds a dense, complex TV show, hidden in plain sight on network television, that digs deep into the current political moment.

It’s no secret that times of social crisis can lead to a culture’s greatest art – in the case of the American cinema alone, stifling Eisenhower conformity and suppressed racial and sexual tensions gave us Douglas Sirk, The Searchers, and Vertigo, while a couple decades later post-Watergate and Vietnam malaise gave rise to the New Hollywood of Shampoo, Taxi Driver, and Nashville. The increasing – and increasingly incomprehensible – insanity of our current divisions and hysteria has likewise yielded The Family, a riveting new series on ABC that plays like the great American novel in the form of an episodic crime drama; just as Alfred Hitchcock used popular genres and the machinery of the big studios to create his era’s most trenchant explorations of the American psyche, The Family creator Jenna Bans has figured out a way to use the traditions and language of mainstream network television to dig deep into her own cultural moment. Both explicitly and implicitly political, her show is simultaneously intimate and epic, a murder mystery whose primary question – among many others – is what makes a monster in 21st-century America.

For those readers unfamiliar with The Family, here’s a quick summary. The show revolves around the Warren family, whose matriarch, Claire (Joan Allen), is a rising politician elected mayor on a family-values platform – ironic, given that her own family is a dysfunctional disaster thanks to the fallout from the disappearance of her young son Adam 10 years ago. As the show begins, Adam – or a boy claiming to be Adam – returns to the family after escaping from the man who abducted him while Claire was running for city council. Adam’s reappearance sets off shockwaves within Claire’s family and among others affected by the initial kidnapping, particularly Hank (Andrew McCarthy in the performance of his career), the local pedophile wrongly accused of his murder. Because Claire embarks on a gubernatorial campaign in the early episodes of the series, the repercussions of Adam’s return spread beyond those directly affected to infect the entire state, the personal becoming political in the most profound ways as Claire uses her family’s trauma to gain the upper hand over her opponent (Grant Show).

This description barely scratches the surface of The Family, but a thorough synopsis would take far too long, since Bans and her writers jam so much into every episode – both the number of dramatic incidents and the density of the moral issues are astonishing. The question of Adam’s true identity, for example, which most series would milk for an entire season or more, is resolved somewhere around episode five, and vital new supporting players are continually introduced throughout the season (and always given due attention and detail). As the number of characters increases, so do the themes Bans introduces: the intersection between public and private lives, the question of individual sacrifice vs. the greater good, the hopeless (and sometimes dangerous) desire for certainty – and most profoundly, the question of what creates evil.

The Family works these ideas over brilliantly, yet its very intricacy has been a drawback for some critics who have accused it of being “convoluted”; given that the show’s sophistication is matched only by its lucidity, I have to wonder what the hell else these critics are doing while they’re allegedly watching the show. Perhaps The Family’s greatest strength – its seamless integration of theme, character and plot – is also what keeps its greatness from being self-evident. Unlike a more acclaimed (at least in its first season) show like True Detective, which bluntly states its theses in the dialogue, The Family bakes its philosophical inquiry into the narrative. The ideas are both less explicitly articulated and more multifaceted – an answer to and commentary on our current political climate, in which all issues are reduced to meaningless ideological sound bites that do nothing to take into account the complexity of the human condition.

Even when The Family gets into well-covered territory, like the idea that political campaigns are won more by celebrity and personal narratives than issues, it does so in surprising ways, and with characters whose relationship to the audience is constantly shifting. I can’t think of another show that so deftly takes advantage of the ensemble format to consistently force the viewer to reexamine his or her own assumptions – not just about the characters, but the larger implications of what they represent. This show about politics is ultimately anti-politics in its repudiation of politics’ vulgar simplification, making multiple perspectives its guiding principle in both the structure (which jumps back and forth between numerous time periods and characters) and visual form (which relies heavily on split screens, split diopters and an elaborate manipulation of depth of field). It gives us something our polarizing politics (beautifully dramatized in the battle between Allen and Show’s characters) can’t: nuance and empathy. In The Family, everyone is capable of monstrous acts (often the result of the best intentions) and everyone has his or her reasons, and the line between self-interest and self-sacrifice is disturbingly blurry. McCarthy’s extraordinary performance as Hank is key here, sympathetic without any sense of false softening or sentimentalizing – he’s as chilling as he is heartbreakingly human.

The other central performance is that of Joan Allen as Claire, a role that gains added resonance from its connection to Allen’s role as the title character in Rod Lurie’s massively entertaining political drama The Contender (2000), in which she played a senator fighting a contrived sex scandal. Aside from the obvious differences in form (The Contender being a two-hour feature film and The Family a potentially multi-year series), The Contender is more intensely focused in its perspective than The Family, linking itself to the point of view of Allen’s character’s and riding it hard; there’s little doubt at any point in the movie whose side we’re supposed to be on, even if Lurie does take the time to give supporting characters on both sides of the aisle their moments of dignity (and ugliness). This has its own old-fashioned pleasures, but Bans’ more morally provocative approach to Allen’s character – who is, after all, exploiting the tragedy of those closest to her for political gain – feels more appropriate to our own post-9/11 moment. If The Contender was political entertainment for the Bill Clinton era, The Family is the form’s logical evolution in the age of Hillary. In both cases, Allen’s character is a vehicle for examining double standards in American society and politics, but the questions have become even thornier and more difficult in the 16 years separating the two stories.

The Family makes the case that we struggle more hopelessly with gender issues – and every other kind of issue – than ever before, moving away from resolution and consensus instead of toward it. Yet what’s remarkable about the show is that it acknowledges how deep and irreconcilable the schisms at the heart of our culture are without using this complexity as an excuse for slapdash storytelling. True Detective, for instance, let the red herrings and contradictions pile up with the rationalization that if something didn’t connect or make sense, it was somehow an expression of ambiguity rather than just a good old-fashioned plot hole. The Family, on the other hand, plays fair with its genre trappings – the surprises and twists are earned, and hold up to scrutiny on repeat viewings. There’s an internal, well-thought-out logic running underneath the emotional chaos, and Bans never stretches her mysteries past the breaking point; though new storylines are constantly being introduced, she does resolve the old ones in convincing, satisfying ways. Thus The Family becomes, like Chinatown and L.A. Confidential before it, a story that satisfies our desire to see good mysteries solved while acknowledging that the deepest mysteries of the human heart are impenetrable. It’s a great show, all the more valuable in its multilayered clarity given the simpleminded obfuscations that characterize so much of our discourse in the real world.

Jim Hemphill is the writer and director of the award-winning film The Trouble With the Truth, which is currently available on DVD, Amazon Prime, and iTunes. He also hosts a podcast series on the American Cinematographer website and serves as a programming consultant at the American Cinematheque in Los Angeles. His website is www.jimhemphillfilms.com.