"Easy isn't all it's cracked up to be."
In 1987, thirtysomething debuted on ABC. Whether you thought it was a modern masterpiece or an exercise in self-indulgent whining, you can't deny the influence the show has had on television. Producers Marshall Herskovitz and Edward Zwick went on to create Once and Again--the short-lived, under-appreciated masterpiece that I compare all other family dramas to. And thirtysomething actors Ken Olin and Patricia Wettig (married in real life) went on to help launch the exceptional ensemble family drama Brothers and Sisters (Olin as an executive producer/director, Wettig as a supporting player) in 2006.
When Season 2 debuted in the fall of 2007, the characters--like us--had gone through a summer of activity. We're quickly brought up to date on the Walker clan in the first few minutes of the season premiere: youngest son Justin (Dave Annable of the promising, short-lived Fox show Reunion) is still serving in Iraq, but hasn't been in touch with the family; Kitty (Calista Flockhart) is campaigning with boss/boyfriend Robert McCallister (Rob Lowe, now a series regular); and oldest son Tommy (Balthazar Getty) is struggling to raise his newborn daughter with wife Julia (Sarah Jane Morris), who still can't get over the death of their son.
Meanwhile, lawyer Kevin (Matthew Rhys) is dating Senator McCallister's brother Jason (Eric Winter); oldest sibling Sarah (Rachel Griffiths) is still separated from Joe (John Pyper-Ferguson), the result of his kiss with Rebecca (Emily VanCamp), the newest Walker--who still isn't speaking to mom Holly (Wettig). Mom Nora (Sally Field) is trying to keep herself together, alternating endearing and alienating herself from her clan. Phew!
It's also the one-year anniversary of the death of Walter family patriarch William (Tom Skerritt, seen in just one flashback this year). His presence hangs over the family's Pasadena home and is still felt at Ojei Foods--the small, family-run fruit business he left to Sarah--and Walker Landing, the new winery run by Tommy and Holly.
As the season progresses, some major story arcs take shape: Kitty and Robert prepare for their wedding and a tough Republican primary race; Justin returns wounded from the war, fearing his pain killers will cause him to have a drug addiction relapse; Julia decides to take some time away from Tommy, who becomes tempted by new office manager Lena (Emily Rose); Kevin struggles with his feelings in the absence of Jason (he's off to Malaysia to build a school) and the reappearance of Scotty (Luke Macfarlane); and Sarah struggles to cope with her failing marriage and newfound custody battle.
Other stories revolve around a revelation from Uncle Saul (Ron Rifkin), and Rebecca's curiosity with her mom's former flame David (Olin, appearing later in the season). Nora also finds a love interest in Isaac Marshall (the fabulous Danny Glover), an advisor to McCallister's campaign, while Sarah feels a spark with Ojei advisor Graham Finch (Steven Weber). Also showing up in Season 2 are Chevy Chase and Garry Marshall.
Like its debit season, the sophomore year is a solid effort. While I don't think Brothers and Sisters reaches the emotional honesty that Once and Again did so perfectly, it's still a heartfelt series that excels with its cast. The show is at its best when the family gets together and plays off each other, even if everyone can be a little too childish and selfish at times. Field, as expected, is perfect as Nora, a loving mom who frequently drives her children crazy. She's the glue that holds the family (and the series) together.
But for my money, the best actors here are the non-Americans. Griffiths delivers the show's strongest performance--Sarah is the most complex character, a strong yet flawed woman who makes many mistakes, yet has her loyal heart in the right place. Griffiths breathes so many layers into Sarah, showing astonishing depth. Just as wonderful to watch is Rhys, whose Kevin is a smart yet frustrated man who just can't get his love life in order (you just want to slap some sense into him!). Rhys is perhaps the most versatile performer, and excels at both ends of the emotional spectrum: He's charming, caring and comedic--he can make you laugh or cry in the bat of an eye. VanCamp, meanwhile, is a breath of fresh air, even though Rebecca still isn't given enough to do this season (although her chemistry with the energetic Annable continues to be one of the show's strengths).
Flockhart is a pro, but Kitty is still the hardest character to warm up to, which may be the writers' fault--she feels more separated from the family and sometimes gives off an air of self-importance. One of my biggest problems with Season 2 is the amount of time spent on McCallister's campaign. Maybe it's bad timing with the real election--I get enough politics in the news, so it's hard to maintain interest here. Flockhart and Lowe get a lot of screen time, and their story isn't nearly as interesting as everyone else's (enough of primaries and polls, already!). Their scenes alone slow things down, and it sometimes feels like the two are starring in their own separate show (Lowe still feels like a guest star here). But when Flockhart gets some alone time with her family, she shines.
Getty does a decent job, but he still isn't given the same meaty material to work with; it doesn't help that the Julia character is still a dud (maybe that's why we don't see much of her this year). One of my biggest problems with Season 1 was the integration of Holly and Rebecca into the Walker's lives, an absurd, unbelievable story that I didn't buy for a second. Now that there's some distance from it and their characters are more established, it's not as big of a distraction this year. But there are still some missteps this season (Olin's David is too boring, and the writers take an easy out in a development with Tommy and Julia).
Season 2 was also interrupted by the writer's strike, so we just get 16 episodes. The interruption occurred after Episode 12, just when things were getting really good. When the show returned two months later, the writers decided to jump ahead three months with the characters--resulting in three episodes that lead the show slightly off track. A few developments and character decisions infuriated me (Justin and Holly have moments that caused me to yell at the TV), but thankfully the fantastic season finale gets things back on track.
And that brings me to my favorite aspect of this show--it's devotion to storylines that feature gay characters. Brothers and Sisters has been cited as the Best Drama in the GLAAD Media Awards for two years running, and it's a well-deserved honor. It's so refreshing to see complex, well-written characters that just happen to be gay--in storylines that relate to people of any sexual orientation. I was almost beside myself with the "Compromises" episode, which featured three different story points involving different gay characters...how refreshing!
Like the Walker family, Season 2 of Brothers and Sisters is flawed yet fantastic. I don't want to sound too critical--it's only because I love the show and the characters so much. Even with my minor concerns, Brothers and Sisters remains one of TV's strongest dramas, brought to life by an amazing ensemble cast. It's a strong mix of love, laughs and tears, an addictive family drama that has you caring for all of its characters.
The 16 episodes (averaging about 42 minutes each) arrive on four discs:
1. Home Front (aired September 30, 2007) The Walkers celebrate Kitty's birthday and remember William--but are mainly preoccupied with waiting to hear from Justin after he left for Iraq.
2. An American Family (aired October 7, 2007) Kevin, Kitty and Nora greet Justin on his return from Iraq; Tommy struggles to meet the demands of being a good father; Sarah's relationship with Rebecca begins a new chapter.
3. History Repeating (aired October 14, 2007) Nora and Rebecca take charge of Justin's convalescence; Kevin has dinner with an old flame; Kitty has an encounter with Robert's ex-wife; Tommy is shocked by Julia's request for some time alone with their baby.
4. States of the Union (aired October 21, 2007) Kitty, Sarah and Nora make an ill-advised visit to a spa; Rebecca is worried about Justin's rate of recovery; Kevin wants Saul to come clean about his past; Tommy finds a distraction from life at home.
5. Domestic Issues (aired October 28, 2007) Sarah becomes embroiled in a difficult battle with Joe for custody of their children; Kitty's Halloween announcement has consequences for the entire Walker family.
6. Two Places (aired November 4, 2007) A Walker family setback compels Kitty to call on another adviser to help with Robert's campaign. Sarah encounters a new wrinkle in her custody battle.
7. 36 Hours (aired November 11, 2007) More family secrets emerge when the Walkers rally around Justin as he grapples with another bout of drug addiction. Kitty and Robert gain a new outlook on their relationship.
8. Something New (aired November 25, 2007) Sarah makes dinner plans with a business consultant; Nora meets an old acquaintance; Tommy's guilt clouds Julia's return; Justin's new love interest may have ulterior motives.
9. Holy Matrimony (aired December 2, 2007) Kitty and Robert's wedding is jeopardized by a scandal; an old friend surprises Holly; Isaac's reappearance makes Nora reconsider her current relationship with Stan.
10. The Feast of Epiphany (aired January 13, 2008) Tommy and Julia struggle to repair their damaged marriage, while Rebecca's connection with David raises questions about her mother's past. Meanwhile, Nora and Isaac have an uncomfortable first date, and Graham helps Sarah regain some of her confidence.
11. The Missionary Imposition (aired February 10, 2008) Kevin's life is turned upside down by a surprise visit from Jason; Nora and Isaac consider taking their relationship to the next level.
12. Compromises (aired February 17, 2008) Nora takes another look at her relationship with Isaac; Graham helps Sarah let go of her unpleasant past; Robert and Jason have an emotional encounter.
13. Separation Anxiety (aired April 20, 2008) A surprising turn in the presidential campaign prompts a life-changing moment for Kitty and Robert; Nora's response to Isaac's proposal shocks her children; Rebecca continues to search for clues about her paternity.
14. Double Negative (aired April 27, 2008) Kevin has a revelation about his relationship with Scotty; Rebecca makes the results of an important test known; Robert mulls his future in politics; Saul defies conventional wisdom in a business move fraught with risk.
15. Moral Hazard (aired May 4, 2008) The Walkers adjust to the fact that Holly is a key player in Ojai Food's attempts to avoid an international disaster. Justin has news about a family member, Saul makes a startling admission, and Kevin and Scotty are involved in a memorable situation.
16. Prior Commitments (aired May 11, 2008) Sarah uncovers another agonizing secret. Kevin and Scotty take the next big step in their relationship.
All of the episodes are presented in an anamorphic 1.78:1 widescreen transfer that's an overall solid, sharp picture. There trends to be slightly darker tones to most of the scenes, and soft lighting is frequently used.
The 5.1 surround track is perfect for a show like this: dialogue is always crisp and clear, and the few times the sound is able to take advantage of the rear channels, it does (with mostly subtle yet distinctive effects). English, French and Spanish subtitles are also supplied.
Leading the way are three audio commentaries. Up first is Episode 1 ("Home Front") with a track from executive producer/director Ken Olin, actress Patricia Wettig (Holly) and actor Matthew Rhys (Kevin). Wettig and Rhys don't have a lot to do with that episode, so I was initially surprised they were chosen. But no worries: all three provide an entertaining listen with interesting facts about the shoot, and you'll quickly discover how funny Rhys is. He's even more charming in his English accent (unless it's Welsh, which I'm not sure I'd recognize). "I think Matthew needs human contact more than anyone else on the show," shares Olin.
Rhys enjoys playing with his voice, at times sounding like he's narrating a movie trailer, a nature special or a sports show. He's a hoot throughout, as he is in the track from Episode 16 ("Prior Commitments"), where he's joined by actor Luke Macfarlane (Scotty) and writer/executive producer Monica Owugu-Breen. It's another fun listen, especially when he does his Columbo and Dave Annable impressions at the end (Rhys likes to joke that Annable has problems with words having more than three syllables). Annable is also a treat to listen to in the track for Episode 7 ("36 Hours"), where he's joined by Sarah Jane Morris (Julia, who isn't in that episode) and Emily VanCamp (Rebecca). The entire gang for each track is a funny, likeable bunch, and you can tell they have genuine affection for each other--which makes up for a few quiet spots where they don't speak.
Up next are seven deleted scenes (totaling about 8 minutes), mostly from the first half of the season. All could just have easily been included in the show and are worth a watch, my favorite being the "Battle for the Bouquet" clip (I'd love for the show to take more chances with humor like this).
In Guest Book (14:06), we hear from the cast and crew about working with the guest stars who pop up, like Danny Glover, Chevy Chase, Gary Marshall and Steven Weber (all of whom chime in), and what it's like to write for them. It's cute to see the cast get so excited to work with these veterans. The affection one character received from both fans and the cast resulted in more appearances: "Everybody loved Scotty, so Scotty was brought back for a show here or a show there," says producer David Marshall Green of charming actor Luke Macfarlane. "He just became part of the family. It just became an inevitability that they were going to get together." (Smart choice!)
Sally Field and Glover briefly talk about their work together in Places in the Heart, and a lot of other interesting thoughts are shared. No one gets a lot of time to speak, so it's a short and sweet effort. "To me it's a throwback to older television shows that were really substantive and were about family and what makes a family tick," says Bill Smitrovich, who played Julia's father. "What's really great about this show is that it's so contemporary."
Also short and sweet are the next two featurettes: TV Dinners: Food from Season 2 (6:18) is a surprisingly fascinating look at all the hard work that goes into creating food for the scenes. Culinary treats have become a vital part of the show, helping convey that crucial sense of family and togetherness. Food stylist Jessie Sieben talks about her challenges (one shoot with food took three days), and how she creates and preps the treats (FYI, Balthazaar Getty is a vegetarian). Some of the cast chime in, and all are well fed ("I have a very healthy appetite," shares Rhys, the hungriest of the bunch). I would have loved if this segment were even more in-depth--it's amazing to see all the hard work that goes into something so "minor". It will also make you hungry, especially if you like paella--which you can make from the 10 recipe cards included as an insert.
Up next is Open House: Designing the Brothers and Sisters Set (10:04), where production designer Denny Dugally and set decorator Bryan John Venegas talk about their work creating the various sets--a whopping 700 per season. We get looks at the Walker home--particularly the kitchen, perhaps the most crucial set--as well as Walker Landing, the Ojai Foods office and the presidential campaign sets. Both share how they try to create a family history through the props: "We try to give everything a backstory if we can," Dugally says, later adding that she her favorite task is creating a variety of hip, trendy restaurant sets. This is another fascinating look at an oft-forgotten (yet crucial) part of a TV show.
In the Bloopers & Outtakes reel (4:21), we get some welcome chuckles from a usually serious cast. Clips of a running "kiss gag"--where "relatives" attempt to smooch each other in some incest fun--is hysterical, and it's also fun to see Rhys, Griffiths and VanCamp let their accents accidentally seep through ("I can't say 'eh'...that's Canadian!" notes VanCamp, while Rhys mistakenly thinks "doofbag" is something people say: "Sorry...I'm trying to cuss as an American!").
It's a great batch of extras, although you get the sense that it's missing a big, meaty behind-the-scenes feature, especially considering almost all of the main players are here. Couldn't they have done something bigger? Nonetheless, what we're given is still a great collection. Also included are trailers for other releases.
Even with a shortened season and a three-episode misstep after the writer's strike, Season 2 of Brothers and Sisters proves that the show is still one of the strongest dramas on television today. While I think the political story arc slows the show down and feels separate from the rest of the series, the strength of the performances is still too powerful to deny. Just like the Walkers, the show is heartfelt and humorous, a welcome addition to anyone's DVD family. Highly Recommended.