Sunday, May 10, 2009


The Showtime dramatic series Brotherhood, which looks to have just completed its run after three seasons, is an unusually compelling show, but not one that would ever lull me into thinking that I would want to share the lives of its characters on any level. Created by Blake Masters, Brotherhood was often treated by critics as if it was The Sopranos in Providence, Rhode Island, but I don't find the comparison especially apt. Masters was inspired by the history of the Bulger brothers of Massachusetts, one of whom, Whitey, was a notorious gang-leader, another of whom, William, was a renowned state politician. Masters tweaked this rich premise very slightly, keeping the family Irish-American but relocating them to Rhode Island, a state that offers wonderful dramatic possibilities in part because of its very tininess. Everyone knows everyone in Rhode Island.

The series is beautifully scripted (based on the first eight episodes I have watched), and very well acted by performers of different nationalities who combine seamlessly to form a family -- the Australian Jason Clarke and the Briton Jason Isaacs as the brothers Tommy (politician) and Michael (gang-leader) Caffee; the Irish Fionnula Flanagan as their mother Rose; the American Annabeth Gish as Tommy's wife Eileen. (Ethan Embry is also outstanding as cop Declan Griggs.) Brotherhood garnered a prestigious Peabody Award in its first season, and can be recommended unhesitatingly. But I can easily see why the show never really "took off" in popularity, because damn, is it grim. It doesn't really allow itself the out of humor that The Sopranos employed so very effectively, and it manages to make business, politics, crime, nuclear family life, extended family life, and community life all seem deeply unappealing. And, as if that wasn't enough, it is difficult to latch onto a character as a life-raft and try to like them, because an episode or two after you do, they will do something so breathtakingly scummy that you are revolted. I held out some hope for Tommy Caffee for a while, until he decided to goose his political ascent by a disgusting (and all-too-believable) maneuveur. I can't better what reviewer "pymptype" at the IMDB has said about the characterizations:

It's one of the darkest depictions of the human condition I've ever seen on any screen. What separates this show from other gangster series (such as The Sopranos) is that it is almost impossible to find a character to like...Rule #1 of Brotherhood is that there are NO GOOD GUYS; that is to say this series depicts the evil side of nearly every character in the series, including the women and children, hardly ever showing anyone in a positive light. The mothers are bad, the daughters are bad, the politicians are bad, and the gangsters are bad (but not much worse than the politicians by contrast; which I believe is one of the major themes of the show). In The Sopranos some of the gangsters are at least a slight bit likable but not in Brotherhood.