I Like to Watch

ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" dishes up sweet, syrupy melodrama while Showtime's "Brotherhood" serves its darkest turns straight, with no cream or sugar.

By Heather Havrilesky
Published September 30, 2007 5:00PM (UTC)
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Sally Field is right that mothers really should rule the world. Mothers, as we all know, feel more empathy than other human beings. We love more completely. We're overflowing with compassion and understanding.

But that's not all. Since I became a mother, food tastes better. I can smell the faintest whiff of fresh lime, squeezed into a glass, from across a crowded room. I can hear a pin drop in the house across the street. I can see new colors I never saw before. Lost kittens show up at my doorstep with stunning regularity, because they know how deeply in tune with the universe and all of its creatures I am. They look at me with their big, wet eyes and meow, and I feel a deep sadness, deeper than the deepest ocean! If mothers ruled the world, there wouldn't be any goddamned lost kittens in the first place.


But there would be lots and lots of houses filled with cats and cat hair and cat toys and enormous carpeted cat trees, and we'd get tax breaks for doggie daycare costs, and we'd be at war with Mex-EE-coh and Moor-EH-tain-ee-a and KEYR-geez-stan right now, because those countries treat their kitties and doggies like total shit.

Mom's the word
I'm not suggesting that mothers are unfit to rule the world or anything, I'm merely pointing out that people with deep wells of compassion aren't always that practical. When I was pregnant last summer, just for example, I waddled onto a busy four-lane street to save a tiny, tiny kitten who was slowly and blindly toddling across, "Frogger"-style. Yoda was just two weeks old, and he was buff-colored and had big, pretty blue eyes. I washed the fleas out of his hair and took him to the vet. Then I set my alarm and fed him drops of kitten formula every two hours, as instructed. I would wrap him up like a tiny burrito and wipe the snot off his face, and he'd purr and blink at me with gratitude, and I loved that little bugger with the white-hot passion of a thousand suns.

One week later, he died while we were at the vet's office. He had only started looking ill that morning, but it turns out that trying to save 2-week-old kittens is a little bit like putting that injured bird into a box until he "feels better" or sending letters to that really swell guy on death row.


Building on last week's discussion of emotionally manipulative shows like "E.R." and "Grey's Anatomy" and "Private Practice," it suddenly strikes me that most TV shows are just like bionic kittens. They're on an evil mission to toy with our emotions until we're all as dazed and impractical as a big pregnant woman, crying her eyes out in a vet's office. Those bad TV producers just sit by the side of busy streets and send their little robot kitties into traffic, one by one. We dash out to save them, over and over again, but it always ends badly.

Hello, Kitty!
But then, people who love shows like "Brothers & Sisters" (10 p.m. EDT Sundays on ABC) must really enjoy playing in traffic. Or that's what I thought after I previewed Sunday night's season premiere (Warning: There are some minor spoilers here. If you're a fan of this show or even remotely care about what happens on the premiere, you shouldn't read this.) I stopped tuning in halfway through the first season, so it was pretty enthralling to catch up on all of the emotional carnage that had taken place since then.

For example, Tommy Walker and his wife, Julia, finally gave birth to twins, but lost one of them shortly after birth, the plot equivalent of rounding up a herd of bionic kitties, throwing them in a sack with some rocks, and tossing them into the nearest lake.


And then there's the heart-rending son-in-Iraq plot that's custom-made for the effortlessly tear-jerky Sally Field. Of course she's right about Iraq and about how much better it would be if mothers ruled the world -- as a potential member of the ruling party, I couldn't agree more. But when Sally-as-matriarch-Nora sends a perky "Hope you're OK" video message to her son Justin, then gives us her best exhausted, fearful look, and then freaks out over the front doorbell ringing, because she's worried that a military man is there to tell her that Justin has died? It reminds me of E.T., laying on his hospital bed, looking hopelessly pale. I know that real mothers are worrying about their real sons in Iraq, but that doesn't make this scene any less melodramatic. It's melodramatic to the point of being, well, slightly tacky. What's next? Nora's other son, Kevin, saves a bunch of schoolchildren from a pair of burning skyscrapers, seconds before they collapse?

And as usual, by the first commercial break, all the Walkers are fighting, and they're all pulling out their biggest, heaviest weapons for even the most casual bickering match.


"Do you think you're the only one with marriage troubles?"

"You can't just expect someone to organize his life around you when you can't say 'I love you.'"

"Tell her to call me when Justin dies, then we'll have something to talk about!"

But don't worry too much. Lots of sincere, clearly worded apologies will be flying around by the next commercial break.


"I was thinking about you said ... You were right. You shouldn't be the only one trying."

"I'm really sorry about your dad's present."

"I'm so glad you're home despite the way I've been acting lately. I've been so scared and I've been taking it out on you and I'm sorry. You're a wonderful daughter and friend and I love you."


Then everyone dances, so we know that they're happy and they love each other and that's the most important thing of all. Christ, it's enough to make even the kitten-huggers among us wretch. I mean, what kind of messed-up families spontaneously break into dance, smiling at each other all the while? These people are so enduringly honest and loving and good, it makes my skin crawl.

But then ... the mood changes! Rob Lowe's character, Robert (who's a super-foxy Republican senator -- no, they don't exist in real life), and Calista Flockhart's character, Kitty (who's a Republican version of Ally McBeal), exchange worried looks -- or they would be worried looks, if they both didn't appear to be Botoxed into a state of perpetual apathy. Does Senator Foxy know something that we don't know?

"Brothers & Sisters" is emotional Frogger. Luckily, I loathe these beautiful, wealthy, loving, empathetic humans and so it brings me deep joy to watch them suffer.

Blood & sweat, hold the tears
Which makes me a little bit like Michael C. Hall's friendly homicidal maniac at the center of Showtime's "Dexter" (premieres 9 p.m. EDT Sunday). If "Brothers & Sisters" is a bionic kitten, then "Dexter" is a bionic chimpanzee that looks so cute in its little diaper -- until it grows up one day and rips you from limb to limb.


Like the herds who love and cherish "Brothers & Sisters" for torturing them, lots of people seem to find the nasty thrills of "Dexter" stylish and provocative and fun. They don't mind the fact that Dexter is a deeply disturbed guy who can barely contain his urge to do harm.

"Remember, tell the universe what you need," says Dexter's colleague and bowling partner, Angel (David Zayas). "I really need to kill somebody," Dexter tells us in a voice-over.

This show isn't really funny, exactly, but it has a good sense of humor -- like "The Sopranos." And that's nice, because even when bad stuff happens, you might not be cracking jokes, but your sense of humor doesn't abandon you completely.

"I've always enjoyed my work," Dexter tells us in a voice-over, and by "his work" we can only assume he means the work of carefully, thoughtfully killing very bad people. "It brings order to the chaos, fills me with civic pride."


The problem is that most of us don't enjoy seeing Dexter do his work, nor can we tolerate the glint in his eye, the way he relishes the sight of blood. Even though "Dexter" is a well-written, smart, savvy show, even though it's arguably more sick and twisted to see the same half-naked female victims on "CSI" over and over again, even though this season, the feds are following Dexter's trail in earnest, I can't watch. There's too much blood, Dexter is too crazy, and the whole thing makes me feel sick to my stomach. No matter how cute the bionic chimp is, deep down inside I don't trust the little bastard, and I don't want to be there when he has his next temper tantrum.

I know lots of you probably love "Dexter," so I'm sorry to let you down. If only I were a little less aware of the immense suffering of millions of souls in our solar system, I could share your carefree enthusiasm!

Curiously strong Caffee
But remember, if mothers ruled the world, there would be no goddamned murderers in the first place. Instead, very bad people would be made to feel deeply ashamed of their behavior, and the Senate and the House would have to install Naughty Seats.

That's where State Rep. Tommy Caffee (Jason Clarke) of "Brotherhood" (premieres 10 p.m. EDT Sunday on Showtime) might find himself one day, if he continues on his current semi-ambitious, semi-corrupt course. (Warning: Some spoilers ahead.) But if his brother Michael's (Jason Isaacs) past actions are any indication, it won't be a smooth road. At the end of last season, both Tommy and his thug brother were being investigated by the feds, and Tommy was beginning to question the judgment of his mentor and ally Judd Fitzgerald, who seemed to be suffering from dementia. Meanwhile, Tommy's wife, Eileen (Annabeth Gish), came clean about her cheating and drug use, a conversation that's pretty tough to imagine, given Tommy's ideas about loyalty and honor.


At the start of the show's second season, all of the Caffees seem to be fighting their own lonely battles. Tommy is navigating the shark-filled political waters without being able to rely on Judd's advice and instincts. Michael is struggling in the wake of his head injuries, inflicted by a drunken, enraged family friend, cop Declan (Ethan Embry), in the season finale. Declan may be the most lost of all, estranged from his wife and desperate to win her back. Meanwhile, Eileen finds herself shut out by Tommy, but she's trying not to drink or use drugs or cheat, so she ends up striking up an unlikely friendship with the fiancée of her dead lover (her new friend is unaware of the affair, of course).

Yes, "Brotherhood" is as dark as it sounds. The Caffees are committed to each other, but most of the time that commitment seems like a big mistake. This makes them much more realistic as a family than the hugging 'n' learning Walker family of "Brothers & Sisters," of course, but even so, we're only afforded glimpses of their affection for each other every so often.

And while "Brotherhood" features solid acting, smart dialogue and interesting stories, you never really feel like you know any of the characters outside of the matriarch, Rose (Fionnula Flanagan). While Rose's desires and vulnerabilities are colorfully illustrated for us, the same can't be said for Tommy, Michael or Eileen. Tommy is an ambitious politician and a loyal son and brother, sure, but who the hell is he otherwise? The drive for Eileen to cheat and smoke pot was never completely clear, beyond the fact that her life with Tommy was restrictive and lonely. And Michael may be the most difficult to parse of all: What does he aspire to be, and why does his love of money and power always win out over what these needs do to his family? The inner conflicts of these characters are clear, but we still don't feel like we know much about them, beyond the fact that they're conflicted.

It's fine to have simple characters in play -- look how simple many of the characters on "The Sopranos" were -- but the audience still needs something to sink their teeth into. We want to see characters in a moment of weakness or higher understanding. Christopher (Michael Imperioli) on "The Sopranos" wasn't all that smart or complex, but his simplistic, selfish outlook was always illustrated in interesting ways, whether he was slipping into a drugged-out abyss or bickering with Adriana.

And unlike "The Sopranos" and "Dexter" (and "Mad Men," for that matter), "Brotherhood" doesn't have a highly developed sense of humor. Even though, between the criminal and political worlds, there's plenty of fun to be had, no one is having any. In the first few episodes of the second season, Tommy messes with a fellow state rep and grapples with a colleague's scorned mistress -- situations that would be milked for one or two good chuckles on other shows -- but he does it all with a grim look on his face. Sure, he's thinking things through, he's moving closer to some new way of dealing with his world. But isn't there room for some levity here? Even "The Wire" is more playful than this.

These elements may seem minor, taken alone, but together, they keep "Brotherhood" from becoming a truly memorable drama. This show is worth watching, but it doesn't rise to that level of art that you find elsewhere: Janice Soprano, talking about the joys of motherhood and then bitching at the nanny; Don Draper's secretary Peggy on "Mad Men," dryly informing her former mentor Joan that her man-chasing advice is no longer welcome; coach Taylor of "Friday Night Lights," bashfully stopping by his wife's high school counselor office for a little career advice. These are the little moments that allow us to feel connected to (or repelled by) rich, evolving characters.

"Brotherhood" could feel funnier and weightier, with the right touches. This show isn't just another bionic kitten, replete with skin-deep emotional manipulations -- it's more organic and subtle than that. But the character development and the premise need to be finessed to push the show past good to great.

Motherly shove
But then, maybe I'm just acting like a bad mother, expecting way too much of my talented offspring as they show great potential but continue to underachieve. Look, ruling the world isn't easy, but someone had to do it, someone with great big wells of compassion and love (like me). I just want the American people to know that, as we wait for our diplomatic sanctions against Mex-EE-coh and Moor-EH-tain-ee-a and KEYR-geez-stan to take effect, as we continue to pursue our policy of publicly shaming bad countries (countries that should be totally ashamed of themselves! You know who you are!), at least we can sleep easy at night, knowing that we're doing right by the doggies and kitties of the world. But don't forget, fluffy little muffinheads across the globe are still hungry, and have never known the joys of squeaky toys and soft, comfy beds with their names monogrammed on the sides. But they will, someday! We won't let you down, goddamn it! (Unless you deserve to be let down, that is.)

Heather Havrilesky

Heather Havrilesky is a regular contributor to the New York Times Magazine, The Awl and Bookforum, and is the author of the memoir "Disaster Preparedness." You can also follow her on Twitter at @hhavrilesky.

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