ABC’s Brothers & Sisters experienced both hype (not since The Philadelphia Story has a finer cast been assembled!) and backlash (recasts! reshoots!) before the program even hit the air. By the time the pilot premiered in September — a dark, somewhat torturous hour about the Kennedy-esque Walker clan of California — who didn’t envy Tom Skerritt’s patriarch, William, as he fatally faceplanted in the backyard pool? At least he got to escape this bunch of Debbie Downers.
Since then the series has improved, not-so-coincidentally around the time that Everwood creator Greg Berlanti signed on as executive producer. An Upstairs, Downstairs gay story line for Kevin Walker (Matthew Rhys) shows promise — and the series deserves kudos for showing a passionate male-on-male kiss two weeks running. But Brothers is still in search of an identity. Its issues — child diabetes, a handsy older gentleman who harasses Sally Field’s Nora — are rather antiquated, and any show that mentions the phrase ”pension fund,” much less relies on it for a major plot point, should have its dramatic license revoked. The roster of familiar stars hasn’t helped Brothers’ cause: First Patricia Wettig appears to remind us the program doesn’t have the novelty that thirtysomething did. Then Treat Williams drops by to remind us that the drama isn’t as layered or textured as Everwood. Then Meredith Baxter shows up to remind us that this clan doesn’t jell as seamlessly as the one on Family.
The titular brothers and sisters should also serve as a chemistry lesson to future showrunners: They’re a fine bunch, but they don’t seem to be orbiting the same show, never mind the same family. (The pudgy kid and Robot Girl from Small Wonder were more believable as siblings.) No matter how hard Calista Flockhart tries, her conservative TV pundit Kitty comes across as just shy of endearing and compassionate. Rachel Griffiths, terrific for years on Six Feet Under, can’t seem to keep her Aussie accent contained. Of all the siblings, only Balthazar Getty’s Tommy (his raison d’être: he’s sterile) and Rhys’ Kevin are relatable (and seemingly related).
Ultimately, none of them really matter, because the title of the show is a misnomer: It’s really The Sally Field Hour. As Nora — the passive-aggressive (emphasis on aggressive) matriarch dealing with the legacy of her philandering and possibly criminal dead husband — the Oscar winner rises above the material and elevates every actor (and inanimate object) she interacts with.