Cable network Showtime has always been portrayed in the press as an eager young HBO wannabe (although with the channel's proclivity for killing off shows in their prime — "Huff," anyone? — perhaps they're modeling themselves after Fox); a daring, edgy network whose movie programming is supplemented by groundbreaking dramas and comedies, such as the Americanized "Queer As Folk" and the surprise breakout hit "Weeds." Pegged as HBO-lite by industry wags, it was to absolutely no one's surprise that when Brotherhood debuted in 2006, it was instantly tagged as an "Irish Sopranos," a glib approximation of Blake Masters's creation that both discounts his intentions and slights David Chase's masterful crime saga — each series has its pluses and minuses, with "The Sopranos" landing on top, but Brotherhood is nothing if not ambitious, which helps gloss over some of the more trite and predictable aspects of this violent, often compelling drama.
The Chaffee brothers — State Representative Tommy (Jason Clarke) and heretofore missing criminal Michael (Jason Isaacs) — are products of "The Hill," an Irish working-class neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island. Both men are not only bound by blood, but in some cases, often stained by it; the progressive Tommy is a politician equally comfortable espousing noble verbiage about virtue while hammering out a mutually beneficial agreement with other pols behind closed doors and Michael, a ruthless, brutally violent thug whose unexplained seven year absence has only whetted his appetite for a taste of the illegal, functions as a shade-of-gray flip-side to his seemingly above-board brother. The Chaffee's mother, Rose, (Fionnula Flanagan)
You have to wonder if the critics watched Brotherhood past the first episode: there's much more at work than a simple portrait of an Irish mobster — Masters seems almost as fascinated by political machinations and power struggles as they relate to the close-knit Chaffee family than any glorification of a seamy underworld; think of it as the densely plotted politics of "The Wire" fused with the flavor of Ted Demme's Monument Ave. and liberal sprinkles of, yes, "The Sopranos." But whereas "The Sopranos" seamlessly floats between the professional and personal worlds, Brotherhood has a trickier time, mostly because the characters frequently lapse into cliche (for example, Annabeth Gish's performance notwithstanding, the character of Eileen is a one-note desperate housewife, trysts and pot smoking included while the boys' mother, Rose, is an awkward caricature) and the plotlines, while involving, tend to develop quite slowly (although "Sopranos" fans probably don't have any right to bitch about that, what with the recent glacial pace and all). Masters also leans a little too heavily on the Cain and Abel references, giving each episode a Bible verse, rather than a title. (Each verse is summarized below and generally ties into that episode's action.)
All that said, the assembled cast grows comfortably into their respective characters — Clarke and Isaacs, in particular, are solid as the pair of not-so-different brothers, with able support delivered by Fionnula Flanagan, Gish and Ethan Embry. These 11 episodes function as a slow burn, building the tale of these two men, wrestling with loyalty and honor, attempting to each make their mark on a world that doesn't always understand their motives. Brotherhood isn't the surprise smash that some critics — most helpfully blurbed on the packaging here — would have you believe, but it's not a show that those on the fence should necessarily write off either. Given room and time to grow, Blake Masters's creation could blossom into a sturdy, B-level drama that will maintain a small, but loyal, audience.
The first season of Brotherhood is spread across three discs by Sony and is packaged in a cardboard slipcase housing three slimline cases. Material for the episode synopses is taken from the disc packaging and for those who want their Brotherhood experience untainted by advance knowledge, be aware that some spoilers can be found below.
Episode One — Mark 8:36 (For what shall it profit a man, if he shall gain the whole world, and lose his own soul?), dir. Phillip Noyce
Tommy finds himself being blackmailed by an Irish mob boss after it's discovered that long-lost brother Michael has returned to his home town of Providence, Rhode Island.
Episode Two — Genesis 27:29 (Let people serve thee, and nations bow down to thee: be lord over thy brethren, and let thy mother's sons bow down to thee: cursed be every one that curseth thee, and blessed be he that blesseth thee.), dir. Ed Bianchi
As Michael attempts to expand his business, he finds himself conflicting with Freddie (Kevin Chapman) and Tommy's efforts to halt new highway construction that would destroy The Hill puts him in close proximity to Judd Fitzgerald (Len Cariou), the most powerful man in Rhode Island. Meanwhile, Eileen (Annabeth Gish) continues her affair with postman Carl (Rob Campbell), a sign of her discontent.
Episode Three — Matthew 13:57 (And they were offended in him. But Jesus said unto them, A prophet is not without honor, save in his own country, and in his own house.), dir. Jean DeSegonzac
While Tommy gets himself ever closer to Judd, Carl breaks off his affair with Eileen and Michael wrestles with how much The Hill has changed during his absence.
Episode Four — Matthew 5:6 (Blessed are they which do hunger and thirst after righteousness: for they shall be filled.), dir. Ed Bianchi
Tensions mount between the Caffee brothers when federal Treasury agents raid the boy's mother, Rose's (Fionnula Flanagan), house during Sunday dinner.
Episode Five — Matthew 12:25 (And Jesus knew their thoughts, and said unto them, Every kingdom divided against itself is brought to desolation; and every city or house divided against itself shall not stand ...), dir. Steve Shill
Michael and Freddie clash over a local softball tournament while Tommy works to balance his loyalty between the Speaker of the House and The Hill. Also, Rose loses her job.
Episode Six — Samyutta 11:10 (Calm in the Face of Anger), dir. Leslie Libman
Declan (Ethan Embry) and his partner Ralph (Tony V.) find themselves involved in a shooting while Eileen spirals downward, Tommy pays back a loan and Mary Rose (Fiona C. Erickson) gets caught smoking pot.
Episode Seven — Genesis 27:39 (Isaac his father answered him, "Behold, of the fatness of the earth will be your dwelling, and of the dew of the sky from above.), dir. Steve Shill
Michael convinces Tommy to help save a local movie theater while Eileen confesses to Mary Kate (Kerry O'Malley). Rose finds herself faced with employment at a "big box" store and Pete (Stivi Paskoski) bids sobriety adieu, while Declan discovers that Marty (Tom Kemp) has cancer.
Episode Eight — Job 31:5-6 ("If I have walked with falsehood, Or if my foot has hastened to deceit, Let me be weighed on honest scales, That God may know my integrity."), dir. Nick Gomez
Michael takes off on a road trip with an old girlfriend as Rose plans a surprise birthday party for him. Eileen tries to reform as Tommy angles himself for a promotion.
Episode Nine — Ecclesiastes 7:2 (It is better to go to the house of mourning than to go to the house of feasting: for that is the end of all men, and the living should take this to heart.), dir Henry Bromell
In the aftermath of a gruesome bus crash that kills 17 individuals, The Hill mourns.(Features commentary from creator/executive producer/writer Blake Masters and director/executive producer/writer Henry Bromell.)
Episode Ten — Vivekachudamani: 51 (Sons and suchlike are able free their father from debts, but no one can free someone else from bondage.), dir. Brian Kirk
Tommy and Michael's long-lost father resurfaces and Pete tries to help Eileen, as Rose can no longer deny that her Michael is a gangster.
Episode Eleven — Matthew 22:10 (So those servants went out into the highways, and gathered together all as many as they found, both bad and good: and the wedding was furnished with guests.), dir. Ed Bianchi
As The Hill unites for an enormous Irish wedding, the ever-lengthening shadow of Michael's influence is undeniable.
The DVD The Video
Presented as originally broadcast on Showtime, with a 1.78:1 anamorphic widescreen transfer, Brotherhood looks, for the most part, crisp and clean – there's no noise or other significant visual defect to distract from this occasionally smeary, ghosty image. Most viewers should be perfectly happy with what's offered here. The Audio
A show largely driven by dialogue, Brotherhood doesn't have many moments of surround activity, but that doesn't mean the Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack isn't full, warm and lively when called for. Smooth, clear and free from drop-out or distortion, this is a solid aural representation. A Dolby 2.0 stereo track and a Spanish 2.0 stereo track are also on board. The Extras
If Showtime is hoping to win converts with this DVD set, you wouldn't know from the scant supplemental material included here: out of 11 episodes, only one — episode nine — features a commentary track from Masters and Bromell, with the pitiful "power map," which lays out the relationships and power struggles among the characters in graphical form, trailers for "Sleeper Cell" and "The L Word," a photo gallery and cast biographies for Isaacs, Clarke, Gish, Embry, Chapman and Flanagan rounding out the set. All of the bonus features can be found on the third disc. Final Thoughts
Brotherhood isn't the surprise smash that some critics — most helpfully blurbed on the packaging here — would have you believe, but it's not a show that those on the fence should necessarily write off either. Given room and time to grow, Blake Masters's creation could blossom into a sturdy, B-level drama that will maintain a small, but loyal, audience. Recommended.