I received a slightly spammish email a few weeks ago from a fellow named Brandon with a marketing outfit called M80. Brandon noted my interest in the F/X network series "Rescue Me" in an earlier post and thought that I might be interested in a show his company was promoting, the new Showtime drama "Brotherhood." He also thought that my status as a "reputable influencer" would be a "big help" to M80. And if by big help, he means that I could make maybe two dozen people (on a good day) more aware of his show, then I salute his acumen. After a chuckle, I sent him my standard response that I didn't subscribe to Showtime or any other premium channel because if I did, I would never leave the house (of course the Internet has long since filled that void). Much to my surprise, Brandon offered to send me a DVD of the pilot episode, and, after I acquiesced, a package arrived a few days later with said DVD and a glossy press kit.
Contrary to my neighbor's suggestion that I write my review after seeing only part of the show, as I did with the Grammys and the Oscars, I sat down and watched from start to finish, with no distractions except when the dog alerted me to fellow canines that she heard in the show or neighbors walking by. The following is my first, and probably last, review for M80.
According to the press kit, "Brotherhood" is a modern take on Cain and Abel, set in a fictitious Irish neighborhood of Providence, Rhode Island, known as "The Hill." Tommy Caffee (Jason Clark) is a bright, young, successful State Representative and father of three who is not afraid to play political hardball to advance the prospects of himself and his district. Shortly after the opening credits, Tommy's older brother Michael (Jason Isaacs) returns to the Hill from a self-imposed, seven-year absence to escape the heat from an organized crime soldier and the FBI. Shortly after his return, Michael begins to reestablish himself as a man of the underworld with whom to be reckoned. Naturally, complications ensue.
If you find this plotline to be unreasonably cynical or farfetched, let me direct your attention to Wikipedia entries for former Providence mayor Buddy Cianci and Massachusetts' notorious brothers Bulger.
Okay, now that we have established some factual bases for the plot, what did I think of the show? Well, it's very ambitious, well acted, powerfully filmed and well-detailed, but overall, it lacks the balance of the shows I like, the light touches and the dark humor that allow me to laugh or catch a break from all the violence and melodrama. The show is not shy about using inflammatory language and evocative visuals, but I was not satisfied with the end result.
Take the opening scene. The camera fades in on an American flag waving in the foreground of a construction site cloaked in dust and exhaust. As the opening theme music lowers, we hear a profanity-laden argument between a local Irish mobster and an African-American construction worker that ends with one of them being bludgeoned to death with a shovel in view of the entire construction crew. This event plays a major role in getting the story going, but having it immediately follow the 9/11 imagery at the outset seems gratuitous.
As does the continual use of racial epithets. I'm not asking for politically correct gangsters, but did the writers really need to show us how many derogatory words people use to describe African-Americans? Yes, the characters are racists, I get it. But isn't it more likely that they would just spew forth their favorite slur rather than choose yet another variation? But I guess I shouldn't expect subtlety from a show that favors blunt objects as weapons of choice; in addition to the shovel, blows issue forth from a baseball bat and characters' faces are bashed against a bar and a car (but not with a mouse or in a house). In the future, look to see weaponized golf clubs, kayak paddles, or the old standby, tire irons.
The show has some nice subtleties, but more often I felt like the guy on the wrong end of the baseball bat. We know Rep. Caffee is a good family man because we see him walking his progeny home from Sunday dinner at his mother's, fixing the gate on his front walk, taking the training wheels off his daughter's bike, and reading to his girls at bedtime from "The Lives of the Saints." Come on, would it have killed them to let him read Strawberry Shortcake?
And then there are the accents. One of the things I loved about the show "Homicide" was that the characters never even attempted to imitate the rather distinct Baltimore accent. In "Brotherhood," an Irish-inflected New England accent seems to come and go and varies from character to character, but it really serves only to distract and detract. When Michael said that his brother must be "wicked pissed," I missed the next line because I was too busy looking for Adam Sandler or Jimmy Fallon to pop up onscreen.
So what did I like about the show? As I said above, the acting is very good, both the brothers and the supporting cast, even when they are hampered by ham-handed dialogue. Isaacs may be familiar to many as Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter series and Annabeth Gish as Tommy's wife Rose was a regular on the West Wing. Isaacs ably plays the charmer capable of extreme violence, as in the scene where he cuts off a rival's ear and later presents it, along with a pair of diamond studs, to a woman whose ear the man had injured. Sort of a Quentin Tarantino meets Vincent Van Gogh moment for the director.
According to the production notes, creator and executive producer Blake Masters (great porn name, by the way) began his film career working for Sam Raimi and Roger Corman, both of whom share a background of achievement in B-movies. Masters has put together a pretty good product, but, unlike his mentors, he doesn't seem to have had a lot of fun doing it.
Certain details were quite good, like the way Tommy's wife frowns when he fiddles with his tie after she has fixed it for him and pronounced it perfect. And at the wake for the slain gangster, mob boss Freddy Cork's car is parked right at the front door, just as it should be. And the small, matching triangle tattoos that the two brothers and Freddy have, although the latter's is missing a dot in the middle that the Caffees' have.
If you are wondering how all this will turn out, I think it helps to take note of cinematic underworld history. We have Michael, Tommy, and Freddy. No Sonny has emerged as of yet, but I have only seen the pilot episode. Anybody else think we might see Freddy saying some Hail Marys on an ill-fated fishing trip in the future?
"Brotherhood" neither sleeps with the fishes nor is it an offer I can't refuse. Look, if Pam Grier starring in "The L Word" couldn't get me to subscribe to Showtime, I really don't see how this show has a shot either, but if somebody sends me more episodes on DVD, sure, I'll take a look, and who knows, I might even pick up a copy when it shows up at Blockbuster just to find out what the deal is with those tattoos.
One death by shovel, two faces bashed into large stationary objects, one assault with baseball bat, one earring ripped from an ear, one severed ear, one simulated sexual act, one nekkid lady shown in silhouette, possible brief male frontal nudity (forgive me if I didn't rewind to check closely). Joe Bob says, "Check it out."