Welcome to Dynasty without the camp. The Walkers of Brothers and Sisters don’t live in a glitzy Denver compound; instead, they live in a Pottery Barn catalog of a house in southern California. Their fortunes were made on fruit rather than oil and their styles are more Marc Jacobs than Bob Mackie. But like their 1980s counterparts, the Carringtons, the Walkers’ lives are a cornucopia of angst.
All of their issues are on display within the first five minutes of the pilot. Family black sheep Kitty (Calista Flockhart) shimmies to a jazzy tune and shaves her legs while fielding phone calls from each of her siblings. First comes Sarah (Rachel Griffiths), the “responsible one.” She’s got two kids and a troubled marriage with husband Joe. Then there’s Kevin (Matthew Rhys.) He’s the gay one. He’s also a commitment-phobic workaholic. Next up are Tommy (Balthazar Getty) and Justin (David Annable.) Justin is a veteran of the conflict in Afghanistan and a recovering drug addict. As for Tommy, well eventually we’ll find out that he’s sterile, but he doesn’t have much to do in the first episode or in most of the first season really.
Kitty’s got her own problems. Daddy’s Little Republican is estranged from her liberal mother and unsure about her relationship with her boyfriend. She’s also in the unfortunate position of being played by the one-dimensional Flockhart, but more on that later. Last but not least are mom Nora (Sally Field) and dad William (Tom Skerritt). Married for decades, the “Ron and Nancy Reagan” of the Walker family have the perfect relationship, except that they don‘t.
Watching Brothers and Sisters is like having an afternoon soap opera on continuous IV drip. Plots careen forward at a dizzying pace, leaving little time for the actors or the audience to figure out what makes this family, these characters, tick. By pilot’s end, Pa Walker does a fatal face-plant into the family swimming pool, touching off a series of events that result in the revelation that William was having an affair for the last 20 years. He might also have turned the family’s Ojai Food Co. into the next Enron.
After that, the hits just keep on coming: the Walkers might be bankrupt! Mistress Holly Harper (Patricia Wettig) had William’s love child! Nora hates Kitty because she convinced Justin to go to war! Kevin gets a boyfriend! Tommy wants to borrow his brothers’ sperm so he and his wife can get pregnant! Justin gets arrested! And overdoses! And goes to rehab! That’s a lot to live up to. While some members of this family are able to find the emotion to back up the plot, others don’t quite go the distance.
Among the first to get up to speed is Field. Nora is a hoot, meddling and guilt tripping but also fiercely protective of her brood and conflicted about how to move on without her husband and the idyllic image of their life together. It would be easy for Field to veer her portrayal into melodrama, but for the most part, she avoids that pitfall. Nora is over the top but in a believable way.
Field and Flockhart are the marquee names here, but Oscar nominee Rachel Griffiths is the first of the actors playing the siblings to get inside her character. Sarah is brittle and driven but Griffiths manages to make her wry cynicism endearing. Thanks to her, we see Sarah go through the stages of grief for her father a subject that’s otherwise largely glossed over in the face of his infidelity.
Kitty moves in with Nora early in the season, cementing her place at the center of the show. Too bad the show doesn’t know what to do with her. Kitty is introduced as a hard-core Ann Coulter clone, but the writers aren’t willing to give her strong beliefs in areas, such as the war or homosexuality, that would really put her at odds with the rest of the family.
Flockhart also seems unsure about who Kitty is and her portrayal is a pale imitation of Field’s reading of Nora. The show would have gotten off the ground a lot faster if Kitty had some direction or if Brothers and Sisters had debuted a season later, giving the producers the chance to snag someone like a recently-free-of-Gilmore Girls Lauren Graham for the key sibling role.
About halfway through the first season, two important events happen: the Walkers meet hidden half-sister Rebecca (Emily Van Camp) and Kitty starts working for, and dating, Sen. Robert McCallister (Rob Lowe), the world’s cuddliest Republican lawmaker. These new additions aren’t necessarily stabilizing influences for the Walkers, but they are for the show. There’s still a lot going on but the episodes seem to stop and linger a little longer on the characters.
By the end of the season, the Walkers are back at the backyard swimming pool. This time, they take the plunge on purpose, as a family. They’re a little older, a little wiser and Brothers and Sisters is closer to getting out of Dynasty territory and becoming the character-driven show it was meant to be.
The extras on the DVD include an unaired second episode that covers everything the show did do(a more introspective reaction to William’s death) and did not do (a ridiculous subplot about Kitty being groomed into a TV pundit) to start out the season. During a making-of documentary, we learn that Kitty was originally a baker and the producers acknowledge that the Walkers drink a LOT of booze. Annable, Getty and Rhys wisecrack their way through a set tour that’s worth noting because we get to hear Rhys’ native Welsh accent. Also included are deleted scenes, bloopers, audio commentaries and a look at the Olins, the producing/ directing/ acting family that help run the show.