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ABC's 'Brothers & Sisters' redeems itself - some

Charlie McCollum
San Jose Mercury News

Back in September I eviscerated a new ABC series called "Brothers & Sisters," calling it incoherent and unwatchable.

I still stand by that review, but it was based solely on the show's opening episode. Since that dreadful first hour, however, "Brothers & Sisters" (10 p.m. Sunday) -- a big ensemble drama about the dynamics of the Walkers, a contentious but loving family -- has improved dramatically.

In particular, the last two episodes have been crisp, well plotted and beautifully acted -- in other words, the antithesis of that first episode.

So how does a show turn almost 180 degrees creatively in five weeks?

In the case of "Brothers & Sisters," it can't be any coincidence that the turnaround coincided with the arrival of Greg Berlanti as the show's new executive producer. Berlanti has an enviable track record with family drama, having created "Everwood" and "Jack & Bobby." One of TV's finest storytellers, he has a deft touch when it comes to mixing humor and drama -- something "Brothers & Sisters" badly needed -- and the ability to create relatable, if flawed, characters.

Take last Sunday's episode -- written by David Marshall Grant (best known as a stage and TV actor) and co-executive producer Molly Newman ("Lucky") but showing Berlanti's influence.

The installment brought the entire Walker clan and their significant others to the family's summer ranch. All of the characters came into sharper focus, most notably the family's troubled younger brother Justin (David Annable). It had a funny gag about how all the brothers and sisters had lost their virginity during summers at the ranch to a local stud muffin named Tucker Booth.

There was a sweet bit of romance involving widowed mother Nora (Sally Field) and a younger contractor (guest star Treat Williams). There was an artfully done family dinner confrontation over one brother's infertility and whether another brother will be a sperm donor. And there were also developments in the show's most intriguing and truth-to-life storyline, the on-again, off-again relationship between gay brother Kevin Walker (the very good Matthew Rhys) and younger lover Scotty Wandell (Luke MacFarlane).

The other reason for the changes on "Brothers & Sisters" is the presence of Field, who joined the cast very late.

Although she has sometimes been saddled with inappropriate roles in bad series -- anyone remember "The Court"? -- Field is a consummate pro who always brings her A game and does so again as the matriarch of the family. More important, she elevates the work of those around her. In "Brothers & Sisters," that has been particularly true of her scenes with Calista Flockhart, who had seemed uncertain in her role as conservative talk show host Kitty Walker.

Flockhart still isn't totally believable in the part, but she has a much better grip on the character now than she did in the early episodes.

Let me make one thing clear: "Brothers & Sisters" still isn't a great show. It's not even a very good one.

But the progress it has shown in a relatively short period suggests ABC was right to be patient with the show, giving it a full season to develop. This is a series worth keeping an eye on.

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