[6 October 2003]
The West Nile Virus. Crystal Meth. Empty factories. Lyme Disease. Wal-Mart. Small towns of America have enough on their plate. Do they really need David Kelley piling on?
The answer, of course, lies in the prolific producer’s latest offering: Kelley seems to feel the urge. The setting of his new family drama, The Brotherhood of Poland, NH, is, by all accounts, the most miserable small town in the most miserable state in the United States. Kelley, the show’s creator, grew up in a small New England town and (you don’t need your state college psych degree for this one) must have hated it.
What else explains this ensemble piece that tastes as sour as poorly pressed apple cider? Brotherhood comes off as Kelley’s equivalent to the millionaire who travels all the way to his high school reunion just to tell everyone to go screw themselves. If the residents of Poland weren’t fictional, they might want to consider a defamation action.
At the series’ center are the three Shaw brothers, middle-aged, balding, portly, and lifelong residents of the Granite State. Hank (Randy Quaid) is the mope-faced police chief, Garrett (John Carroll Lynch) is the town’s sullen mayor, and Waylon (Chris Penn) is the downcast youngest brother too stupid to land a job selling lamps. (This is the script talking.) While Waylon would appear to be a perfectly nice man (he likes children and animals), his older brothers have such an unveiled contempt for him that you wonder why he doesn’t leave Poland for bigger and better things in Portsmouth or Nashua or some place where the sun shines.
It doesn’t help matters, though, that our introduction to Waylon comes as he is taping his buttocks together in order to look more buff for his interview at the lamp store. But, hey, that’s the golden Kelley Touch, right? The insertion of the outrageous within the vicissitudes of everyday life. His now lengthy television career has been filled with series that resemble each other so closely in spirit, if not surroundings, that his entire portfolio reads as one gigantic Cross-Dressing Dwarf Having An Affair With The Lead Actor/Actress While Suing His Employer For Sexual Harassment Over An Unwanted Touching Involving A Common Household Object.
Kelley, a lawyer who got his start in TV as a writer for L.A. Law, has since overseen two kinds of programs: serious-minded individuals who do ridiculous things (The Practice, Picket Fences, Boston Public) and ridiculous people who do ridiculous things (Ally McBeal, Girls Club). All of them share one common ingredient: sex talk. Like a 17-year-old performance artist, Kelley (who writes most of the scripts) confuses shock with art. His work has the effect of stumbling across a Playboy in a doctor’s waiting room. At first, you’re intrigued, even titillated. But by the 10th page, you’re ready for National Geographic.
In the debut episode of this new CBS series (rejected by Fox, by the way. What other warning sign do you need?), Kelley hits the ground fast. Waylon, asking his wife Julie (Ann Cusack) to tape his buttocks together, is told that he can “forget about fellatio for the next couple of months.” The f-word on primetime! Send grandma to bed before her angina acts up!
Meanwhile, the other brothers have problems more serious than a loose ass and a ban on oral pleasure. Police chief Hank is having sexual dysfunction issues with his wife Dottie (Mare Winningham, on a temporary sabbatical from uplifting TV movies). Seems ol’ Hank has been TiVoing the Today Show in order to whack off to the perky visage of Katie Couric. (The only hotter thing than TiVo, incidentally, is name-dropping it as a plot device. See also Sex and the City.) They’re in therapy (Hank and Dottie, not Hank and Katie). And Mayor Garrett is being blackmailed by a woman with whom he had an affair years earlier. “My one brush with prestige,” his former paramour tells him, “came with your penis.” All this before the first commercial break. Welcome to KelleyLand, everyone. We validate.
As unappealing as the Shaw brothers maybe, Kelley doesn’t seem to have much use for their wives either. It strains credulity already that the three Shaw femmes, attractive and capable, would marry, much less stay with, these rope-a-dopes. But Kelley, who wrote the first episode, seems determined to humiliate them. Winningham and McGovern (who has slimmed down so much from her fresh-faced We’re Having A Baby days that she might be entering Lara Flynn Boyle’s range. Is this another Kelley Effect?) are forced to engage in an embarrassing restaurant scene discussing their lack of sexual satisfaction. Ultimately, to satiate her husband’s sexual peccadilloes, DOTTIE must dress like… well, not Matt Lauer. (She also, if the promo for the second week’s episode is any indication, will be singing every week. She’s some sort of Northern New Hampshire Joni Mitchell. Seriously.)
This is a show in which one of the brothers’ teenage daughter announces at a family dinner that she has lost her virginity in order to keep the conversation light. And it’s not afraid of a good fart joke. Kelley visited the small town milieu once before in Picket Fences—perhaps his most nuanced creation—and seems to have left his original ideas back in Rome, Wisconsin. Unlike its Ben and Jerry’s-lovin’ neighbor, Vermont, the liberal land of milk and honey, New Hampshire has never gotten a great shake. Paul Schrader’s Affliction (1997) made the case that the worst thing you could do in New Hampshire was to stay there. Brotherhood appears to second that motion.
It isn’t the whole picture. I once lived in small town along the New Hampshire border and everyone there seemed friendly, well adjusted, and, dare I say, almost Capraesque, almost entirely untouched by fatalism or eccentricity. Portraying small towns as inviting places to live might not be the most provocative thing for a Hollywood writer who never saw a berg he couldn’t fly over to do, but it just might be the honest one. But that wouldn’t make it in David Kelley’s universe, where, sex and honesty rarely have anything do with one another.