Brothers and Sisters

“I’m not the person you think I am.” Kitty Walker’s first words on Brothers and Sisters let Calista Flockhart’s fans know she is not playing Ally McBeal. Where Ally was flighty and confused, Kitty is driven and levelheaded. The comparison is noteworthy because Brothers and Sisters has generated considerable buzz due to the fact that it is Flockhart’s first television endeavor since Ally. That the buzz has centered on Flockhart and not the series is telling.

Brothers and Sisters is a confusing jumble of storylines involving the Walker family, most of them unoriginal. Kitty is the black sheep of the family, a politically conservative radio host who is the only one among her siblings who has moved far from home. She returns to audition for a television show along the lines of Crossfire, although she chooses to stay in a hotel rather than her parents’ house. The pilot episode, entitled “Patriarchy,” focused on the reunion.

It was also, inevitably, a series of introductions for viewers. Mother Nora (Sally Field) and father William (guest Tom Skerritt) are nauseatingly loving, despite the implication that he has a mistress (Patricia Wetting). Brother Kevin (Matthew Rhys) is the stock gay character, accepted by his family but without a relationship, while Justin (Dave Annable) is the irresponsible stoner/war veteran. Stuck in her own troubled marriage, Sarah (Rachel Griffiths) remains the family peacemaker, and brother Thomas (Balthazar Getty) is so nondescript, it’s hard to recall him even being on the show.

Though “Patriarchy” revealed that a rift with her mother drove Kitty away, it is easy to believe that the whole family drove her away. They all have “issues,” and none minds showing the others’ dirty laundry to other members. When Sarah confided to Kitty that she and husband Joe (John Pyper-Ferguson) were in counseling, the whole family knew before nightfall.

Nora showed that she still resents Kitty’s rally-round-the-flag advice to Justin, according to which he enlisted in the military and then returned from the war zone a womanizing addict who can’t hold a job. Apparently, Fields can’t decide if she is channeling her own performance from Sybil or Steel Magnolias, so Nora came across as equal parts scary-schizophrenic and scary-maternal. It’s no wonder Kitty chose to stay in a hotel.

As you might expect, the mother-daughter feud wasn’t the only familial tension in evidence. Sarah recently entered the family business, and stumbled across the fact that dad’s pension fund was empty, the company was broke, and Uncle Saul (Ron Rifkin), the company’s bookkeeper, had secret, locked accounts on his computer. And the financial future will only get worse, as dad had a heart attack and died at the end of the first episode.

This future will, of course, be tangled up with Kitty’s choice, which will in turn be to take new job close to home. That much was clear from the pilot. She’ll leave behind her domineering New York boyfriend (Matthew Settle) and pick up on the already evident interest from her potential TV co-host. The episode did leave open whether or not Kitty would reconcile her conservative views with the liberal beliefs of her mother or even try to help Justin turn his life around. The larger question is, will viewers care, given the predictable nature of the show so far?

Sarah’s corporate secrets and marital strife are no less predictable than Kitty, Nora, and Justin’s stories, but she appeared to be a reasonably complex woman whose pain simmers just below the surface. Occasionally, this pain bubbled up, as when she unsuccessfully attempted to seduce her husband or warned Uncle Saul not to underestimate her business acumen.

But if Griffiths has found a way to into Sarah, the rest of the cast looks stymied. This may be a function of trouble on the set, which has been made unusually public. As the writers acknowledge on the show’s first blog entry, suitably titled “A Troubled Show,” the pilot underwent major revisions: “As anyone can find out if they google our show, we’ve recast and re-shot the pilot, have undergone some behind the scenes changes, and, for the most part, haven’t been advertised heavily.” Just what this confession means to convey is unclear: the blog makes small talk, drops a few writers’ first names, and resolutely refuses to point fingers. It insists that everyone “worked hard.” The result was a singularly unadventurous first episode.

RATING 4 / 10