The Three Strike Rule: “Brothers & Sisters” (ABC)

Written by Television, The Three Strike Rule

MATTHEW RHYS, PATRICIA WETTIG, DAVE ANNABLE, SARAH JANE MORRIS, BALTHAZAR GETTY, CALISTA FLOCKHART, SALLY FIELD, RON RIFKIN, JOHN PYPER-FERGUSON, RACHEL GRIFFITHSBrothers & Sisters, ABC’s latest hit family drama (Sundays at 10 pm), came back to the airwaves last night, and for some of us, it was a welcome return of quality television. It is rare that an adult drama like this one has managed to remain all-inclusive of its male and female characters. With strong, female leads like Rachel Griffiths (formerly of Six Feet Under), Calista Flockhart (Ally McBeal) and the incomparable Sally Field, it would have been quite easy for Brothers & Sisters to cater strictly to ABC’s female viewers (especially coming off Desperate Housewives).However, the producers have stayed true to the show’s original premise: a series centering on a large family as each member deals with the big family issues, as well as their own individual trials and tribulations.

For the most part, the show is not groundbreaking. Though thought-provoking on many levels, what we’re dealing with is the human heart and how people cope with the good times and bad. That said, the show has been brave in its honest portrayal of sibling Kevin’s slow emergence from the closet and his search for love and happiness. In fact, there’s more male kissing and bed-rolling on this show than any I can think of. Yet, the kissing and lovemaking is done in the same casual manner as you’d expect Flockhart and her onscreen beau, Rob Lowe, to hit the sack. In other words, the producers have wisely decided not to make it a BIG DEAL, and by doing so, allow each story to flow organically.

When it began airing back in the fall of 2006, Brothers & Sisters nearly failed the three strike rule. Its early episodes were downright painful to watch and the plots were so contrived, the writing so cliched and full of holes, I often found myself yelling at the television when I wasn’t rolling my eyes and punching the couch in frustration. My thoughts were, “How can a show with much talent behind it suck so damn bad?” What kept me hoping would give this show life was the executive producer, Greg Berlanti. Berlanti is a television genius.
His previous work includes two of the most beloved shows the WB ever aired, the short-lived Jack & Bobby and the timeless Everwood (before that, he worked on Dawson’s Creek). Berlanti was brought in after Brothers & Sisterswas up and running. It would be a year before his two other shows with ABC (Dirty Sexy Money and Eli Stone, both moderate hits) would hit primetime, so ABC wisely asked him to come aboard to work with executive producer Ken Olin (himself a TV veteran, having been one of the stars of thirtysomething) and playwright Jon Robin Baitz, the show’s creator. Around episode six, Brothers & Sisters turned a corner and it significantly improved. Recently, Baitz left the show due to (all together now) creative differences. His departure probably will not be felt onscreen. How it plays out behind the cameras, of course, remains to be seen. The series has managed to get the writers on the path to excellence and Season Two has been very good. Still, all of the great writing would have gone to waste were it not for he show’s main attraction: one of the most talented ensemble casts on all of television.

The show, in a nutshell, follows the Walkers, a wealthy, L.A.-based family whose patriarch (portrayed by Tom Skerritt) dies suddenly in the pilot. From there, the family is reeling as they deal with the secrets and lies he kept from them for decades. Nora Walker, the mother of the family, is played to perfection by Sally Field. Her gradual breakdown and then rise in strength has been a wonder to see on television. Her children include eldest daughter Sarah (Griffiths), who is struggling to maintain her marriage and family while taking over the family business, conservative Republican daughter Kitty (Flockhart), who made a name for herself as a right-wing pundit (much to the chagrin of her entire liberal family), eldest son Kevin (the wickedly funny Matthew Rhys), whose homosexuality has been portrayed with tenderness and care, middle son Tommy (Balthazar Getty), who has never been able live up to expectations, and youngest child Justin, played by Dave Annable (last seen on Fox’s doomed Reunion). Justin is an Iraq war veteran fighting addiction and trying to find his place in the world. Annable has been very credible in the role of a lost, aimless young man. Rounding out the cast are Ron Rifkin as Nora’s brother, Saul, and another thirtysomething vet, Patricia Wettig, as Holly Harper, the woman who carried on an affair with Papa Walker, and also mothered his love child. Holly is a thorn in everyone’s side, except Tommy’s, who inexplicably goes into business with her. I have really enjoyed watching Griffith give her character honest reactions to Holly. Sarah HATES Holly.

Many of the plots in season one screamed “NIGHTTIME SOAP!” Yet the interplay between the actors grew into such a comfort level they began to resemble a real family. Toward the end of the first season, the producers wisely began to break up the number of scenes the characters all appeared in together (because lets face it, people have lives and don’t see their siblings every friggin’ day). In addition, Emily Van Camp and Rob Lowe were cast in pivotal roles that have expanded the show’s context and given it new direction. The talented and fetching Van Camp (late of Everwood) was cast as Rebecca, Holly’s daughter and the half sister to all of the Walker children. While she initially came on pretty hard, trying to play a “bad girl,” Van Camp has settled into the role of thoughtful, soul-searching young woman. Van Camp’s scenes with Annable are particularly interesting. Although the two play half siblings, there is a chemistry there that could tempt the producers to jump the shark and hook them up. I hope they don’t. It has been refreshing to see a platonic relationship between a male and female on television that didn’t involve one of the characters being gay or one of them secretly being in love with the other. Lowe, too, has been wonderful since coming to the show as Senator Robert McCallister, a Republican running for president. Flockhart’s Kitty joined his campaign and the two of them (Lowe and Flockhart) have been great together. His slickness plays well against her somewhat icy exterior. I tell you, since The West Wing, Lowe has really excelled in ensemble shows like this one.

Brothers & Sisters managed to work through its early rough patches and turn itself into a quality series (and a bona fide hit, too); it still suffers from a little too much navel-gazing and some of the acting can, at times, be a little wooden. Yet it holds together because the writing and acting have convinced us that the Walker clan could actually be a real family. While we wait for Friday Night Lights to return in the fall, I highly recommend giving Brothers & Sisters a try.