Monday, July 17, 2006

Cain/Abel; Jacob/Esau: Brotherhood

There's just something about two brothers, one good, one bad, that nips at the soul in a primal fashion. Just think of how many stories in the Bible, in classical mythology and in Shakespeare (and other classics) are about brothers who earn the favor of their parents in different ways.

But the brother paradigm stretches into novels and films. And, yes, into television shows.

The latest attempt to tell this sort of story, Showtime's Brotherhood, makes no attempt to hide its vaguely archetypal roots. The episode titles are all Bible verses, so you know which well is being visited before you even start.

That said, the pilot for Brotherhood is perhaps the finest drama pilot Showtime has ever had (I haven't seen Weeds, so I can't comment on its quality in re: television in general). It moves. Its characters are interesting and seem as though they will grow into complexities as time goes on. And (the pilot at least) it's nicely directed by feature veteran Phillip Noyce.

So many previous Showtime dramas (Huff most egregiously) have felt assembled from spare parts left over by better dramas, usually on HBO. While Brotherhood is pretty firmly in both the mob and "flawed men who try to be better people" genres, it's interesting in its own right, thanks to some good writing and fine performances.

Brotherhood tells the story of two brothers, one a politician and one a criminal, and the ways in which they try to rule their Providence, Rhode Island, neighborhood. Before you even ask, I'll agree that the attempts to show that the worlds of politics and crime are ALMOST THE SAME are a bit too on the nose, but the show earns points from me by making its politician a decent guy who is beset upon by all sides (even his loving, perfect wife is cheating on him).

Unfortunately, our good guy politician (played by Jason Clarke) is blown out of the water in the charisma department by his mysterious bad guy criminal brother (played by Jason Isaacs). The rhythms of the scenes where Isaacs (who has returned from a self-imposed exile) retakes his turf on the streets flow with a kinetic energy that the political scenes just don't have, even though Noyce and company try their very hardest to make subcommittee meetings and the like have a verve and life to them. Isaacs makes these scenes, well-shot as they are, even better, tearing in to the material with his full actorly charm working for him. Clarke just doesn't have as much interesting material to play (though one hopes that creator Blake Masters and his writing staff have some tricks up their sleeves -- other critics got to see the whole 11-episode season, but I was only sent the pilot).

As I said, the cast makes much of this work. The potentially confusing storyline (which parallels the criminal and political worlds, centering around an Interstate construction project) is made crystal clear by the actors, as are the various family relations. These actors understand their characters completely, and they inhabit them fully. Masters has obviously given them a wonderful template for where they've been and where they're going, and nothing makes an actor happier than information (it should be noted that Noyce is a marvelous director of actors as well -- see Michael Caine's work in The Quiet American for more on that).

I particularly liked the women in this project. In an age where so many "bad boy" dramas have underwritten women, Brotherhood has women who at least have layers to them. While Annabeth Gish as Clarke's wife and Fionnula Flanagan as Clarke and Isaacs' mother don't have much to do in the pilot, they're not the usual underwritten wife and mother roles. Flanagan, in particular, gets the only laughs in the pilot (especially when she scams a friend), while Gish gets a scene where she gets to show just how much her life has not turned out like she thought it would.

And this brings me to my greatest issue with the pilot: This is a dark, dark world, and there's no real attempt to leaven that situation.

Showtime, obviously, is competing with HBO, trying to play catch-up with that pay cable leader. But so many of their shows feel like pale imitations of HBO shows that it often seems to some that there's no reason to bother with getting Showtime. Brotherhood goes a long way toward making itself seem vibrant in its own right, but it forgets that one of the things that sets HBO's series apart is their use of humor. The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under and even The Wire have deeply, deeply comical and humorous moments. Their characters are able to crack jokes and make fun of desperate situations. The characters in Brotherhood all feel very, very serious (aside from the mother). It can be ponderous to watch.

I never review a whole series from its pilot, but Brotherhood's pilot is good enough to make me curious about the rest of the season (the best thing a pilot can do). There's a lot of potential here, and I think Showtime could finally have the show that lets it start building a package of hits that will be irresistable to TV aficionadoes. I just hope it gets the time to grow and realize that potential.

1 comment:

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