"Let me guess: Some big family secret came out
and everyone started yelling at each other?"
For the first two seasons, it was kind of cute: The Walker family would congregate for a large dinner party where scandal and shouting would eventually erupt as secrets were revealed, accusations were made and feelings were hurt (and, in the case of this installment, potatoes were thrown). It's fitting that Season 3 of Brothers and Sisters starts with one of the series' signature gatherings, but halfway through the season, the gag finally wears out its welcome.
I literally lost track of the number of times the tactic was used, a problem further exacerbated by the increasingly self-aware "cuteness" employed by the characters (who make frequent reference to the dinners, as if they're in on the joke: "Oh no," they'll proclaim with an eye roll, "...another crazy Walker family gathering!"). It's become a creative crutch that--like most of this season--proves the writers have lost sight of the show's strength.
And that's just the start of the problems facing the third season of ABC's family drama, a shame considering the Season 2 finale was an emotional highlight that had be reaching for the tissues--and filled with hope and promise of better times to come. The bright spots this season are overshadowed by the huge missteps that hog the running time, and the writers eschew raw and relatable interpersonal touches in favor of some wild storylines that feel out of place (at one point, I felt like we were venturing into Dynasty territory...and while I love Dynasty, that style has no business here). Things get worse as the season progresses, leading to an odd, head-scratching final story arc that doesn't have the best interests of the characters--or the audience--at heart.
It boggles the mind, because with a cast this fantastic, things shouldn't be this off. Nonetheless, Sally Field remains a bright spot throughout as Nora Walker, the loving matriarch of her big, dysfunctional family. Her desire to find a calling--and re-enter the dating world--after the death of her husband in Season 1 provide some of this season's more heartfelt moments. But it's the antics of her children--and the business dealings at Ojai Foods and Walker Landing--that take up most of our time. Season 3 is all about repairing relationships, many of which seem ruined beyond repair. You'll quickly note that very few people are happy--ever!--during this season.
Daughter Kitty (Calista Flockhart) wants to adopt a child with hubby Robert McCallister (Rob Lowe), a senator whose failed bid for the presidential nomination hasn't dampened his passion for politics. Their marriage faces frequent obstacles in light of his ambition and her secret novel. Things are further complicated when lawyer Kevin (Matthew Rhys)--a staunch liberal fresh off his commitment ceremony to boyfriend Scotty (Luke Macfarlane)--leaves his job for a position on Republican Robert's staff (yeah, it doesn't make sense to me either).
That's just the start of the annoying (and unnecessary) nepotism that guides so much of this season's storylines, creating conflicts of interest that most of the characters don't seem to care about. Rebecca (Emily VanCamp)--who we now know is not the illegitimate Walker child --is brought onto the Ojai staff by mom Holly (Patricia Wettig), much to the consternation of eldest Walker son Tommy (Balthazar Getty). Tired of the perceived scheming between Holly and Tommy, eldest Walker daughter Sarah (Rachel Griffiths) quits and gets involved in a risky online venture with two eager young men (Eric Christian Olsen and Will McCormack) in one of this season's more refreshing sub-plots. (Also watch for an amusing episode late in the season where Sarah has a memorable run-in with guest star Cristián de la Fuente, another fun moment that proves the show still has its moments.)
Another bright spot is the blossoming relationship between Rebecca and youngest Walker Justin (David Annable), who seems to have kicked his addiction. They have a hard time adjusting to the fact that they aren't related, and Justin faces additional strain as he tries to deal with the emotional scars from his time in the war (a great story that is sadly rushed). When Brothers and Sisters concentrates on these more personal conflicts, it soars--but the potential is wasted in favor of forced conflicts and glitzy scandal that derail the series in melodramatic waters.
The biggest cloud hanging over Season 3 is identity and arrival of the true illegitimate Walker child--his entrance is teased at length before being put on the back burner. When it finally comes mid-way through the season, your interest will most likely have waned. The writers do a fantastic job of botching the introduction and handling of Ryan (Luke Grimes), a confused young man who doesn't give us much reason to like him. He has two missions: stealing Rebecca away from Justin and getting to the bottom of his mother's death, neither of which allows the character to breathe and grow. He's just a device for the writers, a tornado that blows through the season without much rhyme or reason.
Ryan ultimately feels like a carbon copy of Holly, another character that is nearly impossible to warm up to. Three seasons in, I still don't understand her purpose--and I don't think the writers do, either. Holly is a troublemaker, a foil for Nora (I still don't understand how her presence at so many Walker functions is just accepted); but just when she threatens to become too evil, the writers pull back in an attempt to humanize her just enough that you start to feel for her--but not nearly enough that you actually care. Her relationship with David (Wettig's real-life husband and former thirtysomething co-star Ken Olin, a series director and producer) is one of many intriguing storylines that -again!--isn't given nearly enough time (ditto Rebecca's reconciliation with her father).
The same can be said of Scotty and Nora's brother Saul (Ron Rifkin), who's fresh out of the closet but still mostly ignored by the scripts. Scotty has a few more turns in the spotlight, but not nearly enough--a visit by his parents in Episode TK opens the door on another story ripe for exploration, yet once again is dismissed too soon. Instead, we get far too much time with the show's two most boring characters: Robert and Tommy. I'm guessing having Rob Lowe's name attached to the cast is enough for the creators and writers, who don't do the character any justice. He's dull and forgettable, and his sometimes crappy behavior toward Kitty will have you scratching your head (especially an ill-timed press conference that leads to a cop-out by the writers).
Like last year, Robert and Kitty seem to exist in a different show--the political storylines here don't mesh with the rest of the material--it was impossible for me to muster any care for Robert's plight or Lowe's performance, and the two characters don't have genuine chemistry together (how bad is it that I was actually rooting for Kitty to cheat with the charismatic Matt Letscher, who I would much rather see as a series regular?).
But at least there's some passion behind my dislike Robert. I can't say the same for Tommy (or Getty), and I have to believe the writers don't give a crap, either. How else to explain the terrible chain of events in the season's final quarter, when Tommy's plot to oust Holly backfires? It was ill-advised and out of character from the start, and when the writers suddenly realize their mistake, they concoct a terrible solution: temporarily abandon the character, then bring him back for an awful finale (wacky Mexican adventure?!) and hope that we've forgiven and forgotten. We haven't, and the finale highlights the worst aspects of the series. Equally boring is his wife Julia (Sarah Jane Morris), who barely registers on camera before being treated to an equally disrespectful late-season slap.
Even worse is the obviousness of so many "surprises" this year. Virtually every development in Brothers and Sisters is severely telegraphed--you know where things are headed far in advance, and it's sometimes a chore watching things unfold so predictably. Hints are never subtle, and some coincidences make the show feel like a sitcom that ignores its characters for the convenience of the plot (Nora makes an admission to Holly in Episode 14, something that her character would never do in a million years). Other random tangents come out of the blue to create conflict that feels forced, like the continuing bitterness between Kevin and Tommy.
These maddening missteps overshadow some strong spots. The show is far more interesting when Field, Griffiths and VanCamp are on camera, and their presence alone goes a long way in salvaging this season. The trio is just so real and likeable, even with their characters' flaws. Flockhart isn't far behind (but she's being held back by Lowe), while Rhys doesn't stand out much either way this season save for some out-of-character behavior by Kevin (please...more Scotty!). Annable is charismatic, but Justin becomes too childish as the season wears on (which is clearly mandated by the writers' agenda to keep him and Rebecca apart).
Still, the strong cast goes a long way in compensating for the severe story missteps, and the show is still enjoyable enough given the mileage we have with these characters. But overall, Season 3 is a step back--and overall too dark for its own good (how about throwing us a happiness bone, writers?). What Brothers and Sisters needs is to get back to basics--here's hoping Season 4 shuns the scandal and gets back to sincerity.
The 24 episodes, each averaging 43 minutes, are presented on 6 discs.
1. Glass Houses (aired 9/28/2008) The Walkers go to the beach for a family vacation but things turn ugly.
2. Book Burning (aired 10/5/2008) Tensions rise between Kevin and Nora; Holly entrusts Rebecca with full access to her trust; Kitty and Robert meet with a social worker; a scandalous book is discovered.
3. Tug of War (aired 10/12/2008) Two Walkers leave Ojai; while on a dinner with Justin and a fellow soldier, Rebecca begins to question Justin's sobriety; Kevin faces uncomfortable questions from a very important client; Nora finds herself drawn to someone.
4. Everything Must Go (aired 10/19/2008) Nora prepares for her new charity venture by making a clean sweep of all of William's belongings; a time capsule brings together two estranged siblings; Robert interviews candidates to fill Kitty's very big shoes; Holly begins her own investigation.
5. You Get What You Need (aired 10/26/2008) Rebecca's trust in her mother is put to the test; Scotty's disapproving parents comes for a visit.
6. Bakersfield (aired 11/2/2008) Nora tries to learn more about Ryan; Kitty and Robert wait for a birth mother.
7. Do You Believe in Magic? (aired 11/9/2008) Tommy and Julia celebrate their anniversary; Justin and Rebecca have issues; Kitty's jeopardizes the adoption.
8. Going Once...Going Twice (aired 11/16/2008) Kevin overcompensate for his recent pay cut. Justin attempts to play matchmaker for Saul.
9. Unfinished Business (aired 11/30/2008) Nora recruits the family to deconstruct her new charity money pit; Kitty and Robert take a huge step in adoption; Sarah takes a big risk with her new business partners; Holly pushes Tommy to his limit.
10. Just a Sliver (aired 12/7/2008) The Walkers encounter some with Thanksgiving; a medical emergency brings the family together.
11. A Father Dreams (aired 1/4/2009) An illness and sacrifice cause a volatile and emotional confrontation; Saul reintroduces a high school crush to Nora; Justin finally decides to leave the nest.
12. Sibling Rivalry (aired 1/11/2009) Kitty goes public with her tell-all book; Sarah runs into financial trouble; Tommy allies with Saul.
13. It's Not Easy Being Green (aired 1/18/2009) Sarah's business partner breaks some startling personal news; Nora rekindles a romance with an old flame.
14. Owning It (aired 2/8/2009) Kitty gets a job offer; Tommy goes behind Holly's back; Nora and Sarah surprise Kitty.
15. Lost & Found (aired 2/15/2009) Kitty finds out someone killed her interview; Nora invites Ryan to her house; Holly discovers what Tommy's been up to.
16. Troubled Waters, Part 1 (aired 3/1/2009) and...
17. Troubled Waters, Part 2 (aired 3/1/2009) The Walker family experiences high and lows at the hospital; Rebecca turns to her father for help.
18. Taking Sides (aired 3/8/2009) Robert remains steadfast in his drive to run for governor; Saul and Sarah go to extremes to hide Tommy's legal troubles; Ryan gets a bit too close too fast for anyone's good.
19. Spring Broken (aired 3/15/2009) Kevin and Justin take Tommy on a getaway. Kitty and Evan retreat to Nora's to get acquainted with her new half-brother; Ryan confesses a secret.
20. Missing (aired 3/22/2009) Nora reaches out to help Tommy; Ryan Lafferty gets a bit too close for Justin's comfort.
21. S3X (aired 4/19/2009) The Walkers keep up hope that Tommy will return home; Sarah makes another major career change; Kitty questions her marriage; Kevin and Scotty consider a surprising proposal.
22. Julia (aired 4/26/2009) Julia makes a life-changing decision about the future; Robert discovers what Kitty has been keeping from him; Holly and Sarah find balance in their relationship.
23. Let's Call the Whole Thing Off (aired 5/3/2009) When Kitty and Robert reach a crossroads, she is forced to reflect on her father's past indiscretions. Meanwhile, Ryan makes a discovery about his mother's death and takes a huge leap in the wrong direction.
24. Mexico (aired 5/10/2009) The Walker family reaches out to Tommy; Justin makes plans for the future; and Saul makes a shocking admission.
As with the previous set, this 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer is very solid. The image is sharp, and little touches like skin tones or stray hairs are surprisingly detailed. Colors are strong and veer toward the warm side; minor grain is the only issue.
A 5.1 track is another solid outing, with good clarity and balance. There aren't many fireworks here to dazzle your ears, but subtle use of the rear channels enhances some scenes, and dialogue is always strong and crisp. Subtitles are available in English (for the hearing impaired), French and Spanish.
There are lots of nice little things spread throughout the six discs, but no expansive, meat-and-bones feature that really explores the heart and soul of the series. Nineteen deleted scenes are presented in groups per disc (all in lower quality video; most are non-anamorphic widescreen, with a few full frame images). Nothing too necessary is presented, although a few scenes are interesting omissions (Holly's conversation with Ryan's father in Episode 7 would have changed the tone of the episode).
In The Ojai Experience (12:39), some of the cast and crew visit a real family winery in Ojai to see the inspiration for the show's centerpiece (it's one of the more interesting extras here). In-Between Scenes (6:31) talks with some cast and crew members and focuses on some of the season's locations (like the Malibu house in Episode 1 and the Walker home), but the lasting impression is the interview with Dave Foley--an odd choice considering he appears in only one episode.
The Mothers of Brothers and Sisters (8:19) is one of the stronger pieces, primarily because it explores the greatness of Sally Field and Nora, although I wish the actress was used more in the bonus features. The blooper/outtake reel (5:02) isn't very funny, and by all means avoid the commercial-like Starter Kit (4:24) on Disc 1--instead of catching you up to date on what has come before, it covers plot points in Season 3, sharing some developments you're better off not knowing if you haven't already seen this season.
Audio commentaries are provided on three episodes, and none are as entertaining as Season 2's tracks: Actors Rob Lowe and Matthew Rhys are joined by executive producer Monica Owusu-Breen on the two-part "Troubled Waters" (both are a tad technical and full of silence, with Rhys providing a few laughs); while Owusu-Breen returns with fellow executive producers Alison Schapker and Ken Olin for the season finale, another dry listen that may please the diehard fans. Trailers complete the package.
I loved the first two seasons of Brothers and Sisters, but things are a tad off in Season 3--the Walkers are a little too morose, childish and melodramatic for my tastes. With a cast this strong, less is more--but the writers have gotten off track, opting for some odd developments that don't play to the show's strengths. Season 3 is all about creating tension and conflict through ridiculous plots instead of honest and relatable characterizations. The show is still like family, it's just going through a rough patch this season; here's hoping we get back to basics in Season 4. I'll stick by it, but unless you're a series diehard, I suggest you Rent It first.