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Pilot Inspektor: ABC's "Brothers & Sisters"

In his film Trust, writer/director Hal Hartley once said, "A family is like a gun; you point it in the wrong direction and you could kill someone." I think Hartley's statement applies nicely to ABC's new family drama Brothers & Sisters, which follows a wealthy Los Angeles clan as they do what families do best: eat together, bicker, love one another, fight, and then fight some more.

This being a television series, there's naturally more lurking beneath the seemingly idyllic surface of the Walker family than initially meets the eye. Told through the voice of outspoken daughter Kitty (Calista Flockhart), the series explores the many secrets and lies that exist in every family. Think of it as My So-Called Thirtysomething Relativity Once and Again. Or something to that effect.

What got me initially intrigued was the truly amazing cast that the show's producers had managed to assemble here, a trend which seems to be keeping in touch with this season's many productions: sprawling casts, interconnected plots, richer, more challenging stories, and the sort of budgets that one would usually associate with feature films. In this respect, Brothers & Sisters fits the bill. The cast is definitely top-notch, consisting of many familiar faces from TV and film (it's even, for some, a mini Alias reunion, but that's to be expected from former Alias executive producer Ken Olin).

Meet Kitty Walker (Flockhart). Unlike her liberal relatives, she's a conservative who escaped the West Coast for New York City, where she's the host of a conservative radio talk show. Kitty has been offered to turn her show into a nationally televised talk show and she uses a trip out West to meet with some producers as an excuse to celebrate her birthday with her family. She's not sure she's willing to entertain the offer, especially as it would take her away from her boyfriend Jonathan (guest star Dan Futterman, here reunited with his costar from The Birdcage), just as they are starting to get serious.

With the notable exception of firebrand Kitty, the Walkers are liberals, the sort of California family with a gorgeous, well-manicured manse that own their own business. The business in question is a food and vegetable supply company that's run by pater familias Henry (Tom Skerritt; warning lights flashing here) and his shifty brother-in-law Saul Ashman (Ron Rifkin). Mother Iva (Betty Buckley) is the sort of warm-hearted well-to-do woman that prefers to garden than employ someone to do that sort of thing for her. She and Henry are supposed to have a storybook romance and marriage that has weathered more than forty years, but it seems a little too perfect, if you ask me. And this being that sort of television series again, even Iva and Henry's perfect marriage has its share of heartbreak and secrets.

Two of the Walker children have gone into the family business: practical middle son Thomas (Balthazar Getty, here for once playing the responsible, ambitious son, rather than his usual screw-up character) and daughter Sarah (Rachel Griffiths, in fine form), who recently left a Fortune 500 company to sink her teeth into the family biz. Sarah's marriage to Jed (John Pyper-Ferguson) is on the brink of failing as the two drift away from one another, and their relationship is tested by the presence of their three children, including son Teddy (Jimmy 'Jax' Pinchak), who suffers from Asperger's Syndrome. Meanwhile, oldest son Kevin, an openly gay politician, learns that his ex-wife is planning to move with their teenage son, with whom he has a strained, distant relationship, to Texas. And youngest son Justin (Dave Annable) is a former Gulf War vet who is struggling with drug abuse.

As everyone gathers at the Walker home to celebrate Kitty's birthday, each of the Walkers reacts differently to what happens next. While talking with his grandson out back, beloved father Henry suffers a heart attack, collapses in the pool, and dies. (I told you that the red warning lights were flashing as soon as I saw that the dad would be played by Tom Skerritt.) Henry's death presents a whole host of complications: it inspires Kitty to take the television job, despite Jonathan's marriage proposal, and gives Thomas and Sarah more incentive to take control of the family business... especially as Saul is acting so strangely.

Taking a page out of Veronica Mars' handbook, Sarah does some snooping and discovers a number of secret, password-protected accounts on her uncle Saul's computer. Is he embezzling? She and Thomas confront him, but he's not talking. Add to this the fact that Justin notices a mysterious woman (Patricia Wettig) at his father's funeral and things begin to become clearer suddenly. At his mother's urging, Justin goes to Musso & Frank's to apply for a job and sees Saul having lunch with that very same woman. He approaches them and Saul quickly introduces her as Holly Harper, "a friend." Justin asks if she was a friend of his father and, before Holly can answer, Saul cuts her off by saying that she was a friend of both of theirs. Justin is instantly suspicious. Sarah, meanwhile, is finally able to access Saul's files and discovers that the company's pension funds accounts have been completely emptied. Is Saul paying off this woman, who was obviously Henry's mistress? Or did Henry do something terrible before he died?

As Sarah confronts Saul and tries to assert her place in their family business, Justin follows Holly from a distance and watches her house from across the street. He sees a young woman leave the house and drive off (hmmm, could it be another of Henry's children?), before knocking on the door. Holly answers the door and greets him, saying that they've met before but Justin doesn't remember her. She invites him inside and closes the door. And while the audience will have to wait until episode 2 to find out Holly's story, I think we can make a few intelligent guesses...

Production values are high and direction--by exec producer Ken Olin (Alias)--glossy and self-assured. Writing, from playwright Jon Robin Baitz, is strong, if a little obvious at times. (Did we really need Kitty's extended monologue at the beginning about the perils of dating Democrats or Republicans?) As can be expected by the cast, the overall quality of the acting is extremely high, especially for such a soapy show. While early pre-upfronts reports said that Flockhart had not tested well, I found her to be a sympathetic, amiable lead, in a role that was vastly different than her turn as the titular character on Ally McBeal. Rachel Griffiths is as wonderful as ever, making me nearly forget who Brenda Chenowith was (almost) and, as previously mentioned, it is wonderful to see Balthazar Getty playing the good son for once, rather than his typical messed up druggie character (played here instead by Dave Annable, as if apologizing for the mess that was FOX's Reunion). Ron Rifkin once again commands attention, even when he's not playing a megalomaniacal villain with an obsession for Rambaldi, as in Alias. (I hope that subsequent weeks give Betty Buckley--here playing matriarch Iva--more to do; she's far too talented of an actor to just shuffle along and offer advice while she prunes the trees.)

In many respects, Brothers & Sisters is a sort of throwback to the female-oriented family-centric soapy dramas of yesteryear (think Sisters or Providence) but I have no doubt that it will find an audience, especially given its plum post-Desperate Housewives timeslot on Sunday evenings. And while the ladies of Wisteria Lane have become far too zany for my taste, Brothers & Sisters could have borrowed just a smidge of that show's humor, if only to break up some of the stifling heaviness and darkness that seem to permeate the series' pilot. (Could that have something to do with the presence of former Buffy exec producer Marti Noxon?) Tonally, I think the show's producers need to figure out where they stand, as there's a little bit too much pathos to make one want to spend a significant amount of time with the Walkers. Just a little bit of humor or sunshine(this being California, after all) could do miracles in evening out the series' tone.

While the plot of Brothers & Sisters, so far anyway, has remained rather predictable, I'd most likely tune in again to catch the second episode. And, given the sometimes strained relations between brothers and sisters, isn't that a commitment in itself?

What's On Tonight

8 pm: The 41st Annual Academy of Country Music Awards (CBS; 8-11 pm); Most Outrageous Moments/Most Outrageous Moments (NBC); Gilmore Girls (WB); Stephen King's Desperation (ABC; 8-11 pm); American Idol (FOX); America's Next Top Model (UPN)

9 pm: 10.5: Apocalypse (NBC; 9-11 pm); Pepper Dennis (WB); House (FOX); Veronica Mars (UPN)

What I'll Be Watching

8 pm: The Thick of It on BBC America (11 pm EST).

If you missed the second episode of the British comedy series that the Los Angeles Times is describing as "The West Wing meets The Office," here's your chance tonight to catch up before a new episode on Friday. One caveat: the show is so funny that you might just choke on your dinner whilst watching it. Be warned.

Comments

Anonymous said…
Hmmmm...reading your review almost made me feel like I liked it better than I did. I thought it was ok, but didn't completely wow me like I thought. Always love shows on which we get an appearance by Peter Horton.

Cast is great (Love Rachel and Calista). I always love Betty B. I will definitely watch episode 2. We thought that girl he saw come out of Patricia W's house was the girl he was with at the beginning. It was a different girl?

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