Another Show With a Mystery We’ll Probably Never Get Closure On

By  · Published on March 13th, 2016

I have a bad habit when it comes to television. I tend to be drawn to shows that aren’t very good or popular and are likely to be canceled prematurely. It’s become less of issue in recent years. The initially unpopular Arrested Development eventually found other fans and wound up resurrected by Netflix. And the terrible sitcoms I watched religiously as a kid – like Full House – are now being revisited with reboots.

Still, I have little hope that 2003’s faux reality show Siberia, which I guess only I watched, will ever find a new home online anytime soon, nor that it will receive nostalgic attention 25 years from now. You’re probably even asking yourself what the hell Siberia is. It was basically a fictional cross between Survivor and Lost, and it wasn’t great but it kept me fully intrigued right up until its first season finale.

That finale ended with a cliffhanger, of course, and the show was never renewed. I’ll never find out what was going on. The thing is, three years later I’ve forgotten the show’s details enough that I don’t care. But at the time I was very frustrated for following the show as far as I did only to be left without answers or closure of any kind. Now I’m afraid I’m doing it all over again with another show: ABC’s The Family.

I was easily drawn to The Family for a couple reasons. I love Joan Allen, for one, and although I find it strange she is doing a TV series where she plays a mother character so close to the one she played in the movie Room (which I don’t love), I’ll give anything the three-time Oscar nominee does a shot. The other is that its premise sounds awfully similar to Bart Layton’s incredible 2012 documentary The Imposter.

Both the show and the film are about a missing kid showing up suddenly after many years. In the doc, the kid turns out to be a fraud, a French guy pretending to be the likely murdered Texan boy. In the new drama series, it’s unclear yet after two episodes if the kid is who he says he is. His older brother sure isn’t convinced. And the show is making a big deal out of the question of his possibly being an imposter.

As it turns out, The Family creator and executive producer Jenna Bans hadn’t seen the movie let alone been inspired by the situation of its true story. But people brought it up to her as early as the inception, and she chose to continue with her idea and ignore the doc at least until she was done with the first season. Her actual inspiration was learning she’d just moved into a neighborhood with a sex offender.

Another executive producer on the series, Laurie Zaks, had seen The Imposter before working on the show but apparently didn’t see much of a connection. “It is an interesting documentary, but it’s not our show,” she said at a promotional event for The Family (as quoted by mySA). “This show takes it so far past that. Also, ‘The Imposter’ implies that Adam’s an imposter. That’s not what this is about.”

Funny, but if that’s not what the show is about, I haven’t a clue what more it could be. And how strange that the writing, direction and editing should all point to that being exactly the point of the show, particularly in its appeal for viewers, if the showrunners see it so differently. Maybe thematically it’s not? But superficially the quote is like saying Twin Peaks isn’t about finding out who murdered Laura Palmer.

The thing about the idea of a returned missing kid being an imposter is that it’s not a believable enough scenario without certain implications. The family in The Imposter are very likely covering something up regarding the actual fate of their lost son/brother. It’s just too hard to accept that they thought this French guy was who he claimed to be. The Family doesn’t offer any reason for us to suspect the family.

If the kid is a fraud and his parents and sister were simply easily fooled, that’s just another bit of bad writing for this show, which has problems abound. Its characters do things that don’t seem realistic, with detective on the case being especially phony. It features way too much replayed dialogue meant to remind us of or drive home things said mere minutes earlier. And it manages to make Allen look untalented.

NEXT: ‘Siberia,’ ‘Mermaids’ and the Trouble With Seriously Fake Reality

I assume the question of whether or not the kid in the show is authentic or not will be answered by the end of the season, which is only 13 episodes. Otherwise, why would Zaks be comfortable finally watching the doc at that point? I just hope the show gets that far, given that the ratings so far have been deservedly pretty weak. And once I find out if the show does go a different way than the doc, I may be done with it anyway.

The Family resumes tonight in its now regular Sunday time slot with an episode directed by co-star Andrew McCarthy.

Christopher Campbell began writing film criticism and covering film festivals for a zine called Read, back when a zine could actually get you Sundance press credentials. He's now a Senior Editor at FSR and the founding editor of our sister site Nonfics. He also regularly contributes to Fandango and Rotten Tomatoes and is the President of the Critics Choice Association's Documentary Branch.