15 June, 2007

Brothers & Sisters

Channel 4 had to take a gamble with this as the pilot they saw at the LA screenings was dodgy. It was re-cast and re-tooled and re-written but some dodginess still remained. However, if you bear with it, it gradually becomes one of the best shows of the season.

Brothers & Sisters is about a large family in LA with a huge family secret that gets revealed by the events at the end of episode one. It begins with Kitty coming back to LA for a job interview but reluctant to go home due to a strained relationship with her mother.

The show was created by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, after an invitation by his producer friend Ken Olin of thirtysomething, and the showrunner is Greg Berlanti of Everwood. I believe it's actually Berlanti joining the show that rescued it. Unfortunately he has had two shows of his own picked up and won't be there next season. A genius showrunner is literally worth millions and I wouldn't like to be in his replacement's shoes: Mark Perry of One Tree Hill.

Brothers & Sisters is not just a family drama but an issues drama with Kitty as a neo-con nut-job in a family of mostly normal liberals, which does result in some good conflicts. In the first episode Kitty predicts that her family will see the rest of the country going to her point of view but instead President Bush was getting the lowest approval ratings ever and the Republicans lost the the Senate and the House of Representatives. It would have been brave if Kitty had remained as steadfast as Anne Coulter but she creeped a bit to the left and even ended up denouncing the Iraq war.

Kevin has the burden of being the main sparring partner to Kitty as the liberal conscience of the show and also representing the gay cause. I admit I was expecting him to be a reverse stereotype and be perfect in every way, due to the creator of the show and Berlanti being gay, but he is fully rounded as a character with lots of flaws and problems just like everyone else. That's something to consider when we create characters who are versions of ourselves or espouse some cause we're passionate about.

One thing to look out for is that it is a huge family but they introduce everyone quite well in the first six minutes. Look at Kevin's introduction. We needed to know he was gay but how do you do it without obvious exposition? He says "that was too gay a sentence even for me." It's not exactly subtle but it is natural and something he would say.

We see Kevin in a big office all to himself so we know he's high powered but we don't know what he does. Rather than clunkily introduce that at the same time of telling us his sexuality, they save it for later. He's on the phone as he comes into the family house, "I'm your lawyer not your nurse." Again something he would say normally plus exposition coming out in conflict rarely feels like you're being given information.

As an exercise, see what we find out about the other members of the family and how that information is given in that first ten minutes. It's not always done verbally but visually as well.

Brothers & Sisters was lucky in that it was scheduled to follow Desperate Housewives with no serious competition which helped its high ratings but it did have to keep the audience once it inherited them.

My initial view was that it would struggle in the UK, not only because it's a low-concept political family drama, but that it's quite American. The first few episodes aren't exactly compelling, which doesn't help, but the amazing cast may pull viewers through until it moves from quite good to quality.

Jon Robin Baitz interview 1

Jon Robin Baitz interview 2
Ken Olin interview
Greg Berlanti interview
Writers blog

Brothers & Sisters
Channel 4, Wednesday 20 June, 8:30pm (ep1) 10:00pm (ep2)
E4, 11:00pm (ep3)
(catch-up repeats Saturday 23 June)

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