I was immediately interested in Brothers & Sisters since ABC first greenlit the pilot in winter of 06. As I have mentioned here before, I think thirtysomething is one of the finest dramatic series ever and I am a devotee of anything from the pen of Herskovitz/Zwick. Thirtysomething also was such a collaborative environment. It seems almost every cast member had their shot at directing episodes, none more than Ken Olin. In recent years he had segued to the producing/directing role he clearly loves and he was the primary director and executive producer of another personal fave, Alias, during its 5 year run.
When that show was ending he and acclaimed playwright Jon Robin Baitz joined forces to create a family drama, with the family running their own business. I was already intrigued. Then they assembled a fantastic cast and were picked up for fall in the slot now vacated by Grey’s (as it was moving to Thursday).
Then came the changes: Betty Buckley was removed in favor of the great Sally Field. Jonathon Lapaglia was out in favor of newcomer Matthew Rhys. The pilot was being completely reshot. Immediately it became pegged as that season’s troubled show and it looked like it would be lucky to last 13 eps.
After only a few eps in production, co producer-Marti Noxon leaves, but then enters Greg Berlanti to save the day. I’m a huge fan of his and have much affection for Everwood and Jack and Bobby, two shows he created, and both have a family backdrop. He certainly knew his way around a family show plus he’s just a great storyteller. He immediately made the stories revolve around his 3 wonderful leading ladies: Sally Field, Rachel Griffiths and Calista Flockhart. Matthew Rhys proved to be a fantastic find. Within the first 10 eps they found the rhythm and the show become this really enjoyable family drama with comedic elements. Soon after, Rob Lowe joined the cast, and later that year Emily Van Camp and this show was really gelling.
One of the things I think was special about the show was that this cast and crew seemed to genuinely have affection for each other and I think that has always translated to the screen. Even when the stories were sometimes questionable (Rebecca was now not a Walker, but there was another illegitimate child with an “R” initial who either due to writing or casting never quite worked), I liked these people, and enjoyed spending an hour with them.
I also think the show accomplished something unique in that it was the first network drama to portray an authentic gay relationship, given exactly the same credence and time as a heterosexual one. Kevin’s love life and (over the course of the series) his romance and marriage to Scotty was afforded as much screen time as his heterosexual siblings. It’s a credit to the show and ABC that they never treated it any other way or even called attention to it. The fact that it was received with a “no big deal” from society and the press, really did show how far we have come and that’s really gratifying. David Marshall Grant, the current showrunner, who has been with the show since the first season and who has a thirtysomething connection as well (he was in a very groundbreaking episode and scene at the time), has written some of the best Kevin/Scotty eps.
(It’s also been cool to see this show become a showcase for Mishpacha (family) Olin. Ken’s real life wife (and thirtysomething co-star, for which she won an Emmy) Patricia Wettig played Holly Harper for all 5 years, until last month. Their son Cliff has been a writer since season 1 and daughter Roxy has recurred.)
So why do I think it should it end now? Well quite frankly the stories this year are just silly and there’s little dramatic heft to them. They’re the kind of stories that happen sometimes to shows that have been on the air past 100 eps and the writers have exhausted most story ideas. I realize the show is on a reduced budget this year and most of the actors are taking off an episode or 2 and that might present a challenge with breaking stories, but the overall arching has just been, well as I said, silly. Nora became a radio talk show host after a trip to the market. Oh and a few episodes later daughter Sarah, buys that station and is now her boss. Is this Brothers & Sisters or some bad sitcom from the early 80s? Don;t even get me started on Holly’s amnesia. I realize this was a family soap opera, but last I checked it wasn’t a daytime soap. Breaking up the family business freed them to do different kinds of stories but if this was the best they could come up with, they shouldn’t have done it. The show was always a drama with comedic moments, but there was a string of eps this year that were rooted deep in farce and silliness. The Christmas episode had some weird “A Christmas Carol” dream sequence that was utterly ridiculous.
I think my tipping point was this last episode. It was hinted at for weeks, but I said to myself there’s no way the show will do this as it undermines the last 5 years of story. But they did – Sally Field’s, Nora Walker, was revealed to be sleeping with two men at the time eldest daughter Sarah (Rachel Griffiths) was conceived. The 2 men were Family Patriarch William Walker and apparently “the one who got away”Nick Brody” who will now turn up in the form of Beau Bridges. At the time of birth she still wasn’t sure of whom Sarah’s father was. The show has spent the last 5 years cementing this character of Nora, who was blinded by and then justifiably outraged at her husband’s infidelities and someone who seemed to have some sort of a moral code. One would think if she were in this situation she would have attempted to sort it out before the child’s birth. I guess what I am trying to say in a roundabout way is it didn’t remotely ring true. If you’re looking for new stories in year 5 and the best you can come up with is a “crazy twist” that upends a character you spent 5 years creating and developing, it seems time to call it a day. This isn’t some crazy twist with a secondary character – “oh Rebecca isn’t a Walker, there’s another illegitimate sibling”. – This is your lead, your matriarch. Sometimes I’ll catch a season 1 rerun on weekends and the contrast in storytelling is staggering. Parenthood, right now, is telling rich, authentic, heartfelt, family stories without much melodrama. Yes B&S was always a lighter show at times, but it shouldn’t feel farcical or not believable as many stories have felt this year.
It’s really a shame because the show still has a few moments of authenticity namely in Ron Rifkin. At the end of season 1 it was implied that Uncle Saul, played beautifully by Ron, was gay and over the course of the show it was revealed he indeed was and was living a closeted life (even to himself) and just last season he was also revealed also to be HIV positive. This story is rooted in truth and the way the show juxtaposes a man who at age 70 is finally attempting to embrace who he really is after years of denying it, with Kevin and Scotty (who still have one of the best and honest relationships on the show), a gay couple half his age, growing up in a different time, is rich for great storytelling. Recently Richard Chamberlain has recurred as a long ago acquaintance of Saul (and most likely the man who infected him) and just last week it looked as if they’d give a “late in life” romance, a chance. Ron Rifkin plays this character with heartbreaking authenticity and so many times this season after all the silliness had occurred and there was a mere 2 minutes of time devoted to Saul, I’d say, “why isn’t this story commanding more of your attention”, writers? I’d imagine it has to do with the network and show not wanting to devote so much time to a 70 year old man’s story in this age of the all important 18-49 demo.
I still have affection for these guys, but it’s in that vein that I say to ABC – please end the show this season. Clearly it’s a possibility, as ratings are much lower, but I know this show still commands big ad rates and I could see ABC hedging their bets and ordering 13 eps for next season as a midseason replacement. To which I say to ABC – resist. This was a show that wasn’t seen as lasting a season, and it has lasted 5. The producers are probably crafting the final eps of the season now. Tell them to make it a series ender that honors and respects these characters and let these wonderful actors and creatives move on to new projects. Promote the last few episodes as the final ones of the series. Let’s all have respect for the creators, writers, actors and the audience. It’s time to go.