Sunday, September 30, 2007

Brothers and Sisters and mothers and illegitimate daughters and sexually-ambiguous uncles

Sally Field, who acted her ass off during last year's inaugural season of "Brothers & Sisters", rightfully picked up an Emmy for Best Actress in a Drama Series for her role as a plate-spinning new widow with a whole lot of free time and a son who's been pulled for a tour of duty to the war in Iraq. (Her anti-war acceptance speech at the Emmys, interestingly, was censored thanks to the three-second live feed delay on Fox, because she said "goddamned", a word Fox must find so offensive that the fact that it was said during a speech critical of this country's current state of war must have been like killing two birds with one stone, certainly a coincidence.... right? right?) If there's any reason to watch this show, it's because of her.

So why do I keep crawling back? Sally Field alone, despite her furious acting chops, isn't enough of a pull. Tonight is the premiere of the second season, and I'm strangely looking forward to it. "Brothers & Sisters"'s biggest downfall is a storyline that can't get enough of itself. It's trying to pack as many complicated dramatic tropes (shying away from the trashier soap opera standbys such as good/evil identical twins and amnesia) as it can into just one little season, and (much more frustratingly) it seems not to have much of an idea of its direction, having abandoned its original trajectory and settled into a plot arc not congruent with how the show was originally established.

The second season has quite an uphill climb in the drama department.... aside from the not-as-dramatic-as-they-want-it-to-be second tour of duty for Nora's (played by Field) youngest son, we've got a marriage in shambles, a competing family business with the dead-patriarch's long-term mistress, and a peppy illegitimate daughter (Rebecca, played by some-WB-show alumnus Emily VanCamp) between said dead-patriarch and mistress (whose character would've been much better off saved for a more opportune first appearance later down the line) who might be on the verge of causing some trouble. (Major gripe: this character came swooping in too quickly and was integrated too easily, and therefore has lost a lot of the inherent complication she should have offered and instead seems to be accepted as "one of the gang" despite the fact her whereabouts where concealed for preesumably 20 years.)

The only way I can describe this show is through its characters and how they're used, so here goes:

In a trend that I can only surmise is borne of unfortunate "Grey's Anatomy" afterbirth, the show seems borderline sex-crazed. This troupe of siblings seems to be rather active in the bedroom. Two of the five (Rachel Griffiths as Sarah, Balthazar Getty as Tommy) are married to spouses who have first-billing screen credit but are conspicuously absent at family gatherings. They've also got kids (three and a once-seen-now-forgotten step-child among them total) and relatively healthy sex lives (one couple likes to film themselves going at it, the other couple has gratuitous on-screen sex in the shower). The other three complain when they're single, but don't seem to stay single for very long....

Calista Flockheart's Kitty entered the show with a fiancé, kicked him to the curb in favor of her newly minted talk show co-host, and seems to forget about them both once Rob Lowe struts onto the screen in an extended "special guest star" role as a California (Republican! ha!) senator with eyes on the White House.... and picks him up as her second fiancé in a year.

Matthew Rhys' Kevin, the token gay brother, also seems to have a token harem. How many boyfriends, exactly, can this guy fall in love with? The writing seems to want to treat Kevin's romantic relationships as something much more serious than they are.... we see him meet and discard at least three different guys (with one or two one-night stands along the way) throughout the first season, but it seems either he or a dumped-boyfriend-in-question leaves with a broken heart.... just in one year here, people.

Dave Annable's Justin, the Iraq-bound Narcotics-Anonymous-dwelling razor-deficient little brother, also picks up a handful of girlfriends, finally settling on one who apparently went to high school with him once upon a time, has a unsettlingly boyish name (Tyler?! Who names their little baby girl Tyler?), and is awfully forgiving of his relapses into needle drugs.

Ron Rifkin plays Nora's brother Saul, and he seems to act the role as if he's forgotten he's no longer playing über-villain Sloane on "Alias". His role has been non-descript and ultimately forgettable, but at the season finale the writers decided to not-so-subtly hint that he might have had a romantic dalliance turned unrequited and bitter with some college best friend of his, who *gulp* is a guy. Is this supposed to be shocking? It might have been, had I cared about the character at all or if the writers hadn't gleefully spent all their capital on homosexual relationships with Kevin.

And last but not least comes "Thirtysomething" alumnus Patricia Wettig as Holly, always a welcome appearance in television roles (including a brief recurring spot on "Alias" but not sharing screentime with Rifkin, and a more compelling and fire-starting recurring role in the first season of the terrible "Prison Break" whose somewhat pivotal character's disappearance was unexplained after she picked up top-billing on "Brothers & Sisters"). She plays the previously-mentioned long-term mistress of Nora's dead husband; her character's very agency is built on creating tension. She was an actress with otherwise little employable skills until an unexpected endowment from dead-patriarch's pre-mortem money laundering suddenly made her a business mogul, a role she too easily fit into for a supposed out-of-work actress.

So I know this whole post has taken a bit of a negative gloss, but only because I'm mystified as to why I'm really hanging onto the show. The long-term arc of the show is sloppy and the tone is infected with the "am I a drama? am I a goofy comedy?" seesaw disease prevalent in other overrated ABC semi-soaps like "Desperate Housewives" and "Grey's Anatomy". The show gets flack from its detractors for being overly political, which is quite true (I think) but doesn't seem to bother me so much.... the politics of the show and its continual stabs at "right here, right now" issues seem ultimately the point of the show. This is a political family drama dressed as a soap opera, not a soap opera dressed in fancy politics.

Let's circle back to Sally Field, though.... there's something so honest and raw about the way she portrays this mother character of hers, that I can't help but think she's the anchor of it all. I buy everything she puts out, even when she too gets in her bedroom time with the family contractor. She's likely the reason why this show isn't actually all that bad.... a lesser actress probably wouldn't be able to hold it together (in fact, Betty Buckley, maybe not a lesser actress, originally had the role in the unaired pilot but was mysteriously jettisoned in favor of Field, who was likely tired of collecting her paychecks for post-menopause osteoporosis medication commercials). That said, I'm afraid the show might be relying too heavily on Sally Field to hold it together.... without her, the whole thing would just fall apart.

I wish for this season that the show decides to settle on a continuous story that flows between episodes instead of a "family dramatic moment of the week" cycle with some connective tissue between episodes here and there. How about less sex and more conniving, too? We'll see how it goes.... do you think this show will settle down and get comfortable, or will they up the antics? Only time will tell, and usually my patience thins before time around gets to telling.

UPDATE (10/01/2007): Turns out I made it about 20 minutes into the show before I felt more compelled to turn it off and head to bed where I could begin reading William Gay's new novel Twilight. Probably not a good sign.

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