Case Study 23: Brothers & Sisters, Episode 58–“Spring Broken”

Original Airdate: March 15th, 2009 on ABC

I mentioned at the end of the last post that Brothers and Sisters may be the same show as Parenthood, and it turns out that’s not really a joke. I could have sworn I had previously watched the pilot of Brothers, but I eventually realized that I was in fact remembering having watched the pilot of Parenthood. I can see how I would get confused–both deal with overly large semi-functional families of means in California having gentle adventures on broadcast TV. I think the Parenthood characters are meant to be more middle class, but their palatial Bay Area homes belie that.

Both shows also feature alums of Six Feet Under and I’d argue that this is no coincidence, as Brothers and Parenthood are each watered down versions of the HBO series. In our series du jour, it’s particularly resonant. The first episodes of both Brothers and Six feature a semi-estranged child of a good-sized family returning to LA and deciding to stay and make amends in the wake of their father’s death. Both shows go on to reveal the secret adultery of the patriarch and both chronicle the ensuing struggles over maintaining a hold on the family business, though the Walkers are a few tax brackets higher than the Fishers. Both shows go on to chronicle the romantic lives of the various family members, including a queer brother and a wayward youngest sibling. Both shows frequently use disastrous family dinners as set pieces. Hell, both families’ last names are nouned verbs suffixed by “-er.” Mr. Oryx and Cake Boss also observed that Brothers is what Arrested Development would be like if it were an equally ridiculous humorless drama. For this review, I watched four episodes of Brothers: the pilot, “Spring Broken,” and the episodes immediately preceding and following.

Strengths

  • Tawdry soap opera fare. I can’t lie–I love a good soap opera. Actually, I should amend that. I love a soap opera. It doesn’t have to be good. Brothers certainly isn’t. But the dramatic plotting definitely is. This episode alone features brother Justin Walker (Dave Annable) pining for his star-crossed lover, Rebecca Harper (Emily VanCamp, Revenge,) though Justin’s pining doesn’t prevent him from considering the merits of some Spring Break strange, and the danger of Justin relapsing into dissolute drug addiction is ever-present. It also features sister Kitty Walker (Calista Flockhart, Ally McBeal) coping with her failing marriage and her husband Robert McCallister’s (Rob Lowe, The West Wing) recent heart attack. Of course, Robert isn’t taking his recovery seriously enough and could keel over any moment, perhaps due to a strenuous round of Wii bowling or an inspiring speech. He’s going to be making a lot of inspiring speeches, since he’s also running for governor. Meanwhile, Kevin Walker (Matthew Rhys, The Americans,) the aforementioned queer brother, spends the episode bemoaning the lack of passion in his marital bed and the Walkers are struggling with the awkward integration of their illegitimate brother Ryan Lafferty (Luke Grimes, Fifty Shades of Grey) into the family circle. And then there’s the main plot arc of the Season 3 episodes that I watched–asshole brother Tommy Walker (Balthazar Getty) is on trial for felony embezzlement conducted in order to seize control of the family business, Ojai Foods, which is currently under the oversight of his father’s former mistress, Holly Harper (Patricia Wettig.) Oh, and Holly’s Rebecca’s mom. So there’s definitely plenty of grist for the ol’ drama mill.
  • Strong ending. I find it fascinating when a show can turn its weaknesses into a strength, and this is a good example. As I’ll discuss below, the show’s characters are generally underwritten and have somewhat incoherent motives. Frequently this is in service of the plot. When Justin asks Rebecca to intervene on Tommy’s behalf by asking her mother to drop the charges, she refuses for totally understandable reasons–her and Justin’s relationship is already tenuous enough without Rebecca putting herself right in the middle of the increasingly fraught environment created by Tommy’s trifling bullshit. But a few scenes later, there she is, intervening on Tommy’s behalf. Why would Rebecca do that? Oh, because the story needs to keep moving forward? Okay then. In “Spring,” Justin and Kevin take Tommy to Baja California to forget his troubles. They also have the ulterior motive of persuading Tommy to cop a plea as opposed to taking his chances with a trial. As expected, Tommy eventually caves towards the end of the episode with no obvious reason for the change of heart. I was rolling my eyes until we hit the final twist–he didn’t actually change his mind at all. After Kevin and Justin return from breakfast, they find Tommy gone. It’s a breath of fresh air in a show that otherwise tries very hard to take interesting stories and make them bland.

Weaknesses

  • Underdeveloped/uninteresting/unlikable characters. Look, just because you have 17 different people on this show doesn’t mean that any of them are interesting. I’ll give credit where credit is due–they seem to be taking Ryan’s character in somewhat of an interesting direction, and I think sister Sarah Walker (Rachel Griffiths, Blow) is actually quite well-drawn. However, vast swaths of the enormous cast are inert if not actively inconsistently characterized, as mentioned above. This is a shame, as Brothers has a not inconsiderable bench of acting talent to draw from, but it’s almost entirely wasted. To add insult to injury, the two characters we spend the most time with are actively obnoxious and dull as opposed to just dull. Kitty’s something of a passive-aggressive blowhard. This isn’t surprising, since she had a stint as a Republican talking head on a Hannity & Colmes-style televised shouting match. She’s positioned as the theoretically sympathetic protagonist of the pilot, wherein she tells her queer brother about his politics by saying that “[he] can just keep on laughing and watch the rest of the country pass [him] by.” Uh, enchanting. When Sarah tries to give Robert advice about his relationship with Kitty, she advises that Kitty’s most passionate when she’s arguing with someone and that if she’s not arguing with someone it’s because she’s stewing with bitter resentment. Yeah, I absolutely want to spend my Sunday nights with that person! Meanwhile, Tommy is about a million times worse. His default position is a derisive sneer. In that same conversation in the pilot, Justin invites his siblings to a bar and Tommy asks him if they admit “unemployed hipsters who have seen every episode of Scooby-Doo.” Topical reference there, Tom. He’s still sneering at Justin in season 3 and takes every opportunity to dismiss his ambitions to go to medical school. It’s not just Justin, either–when his mom Nora Walker (Sally Field, Forrest Gump) finds out about the embezzlement and is distressed that Tommy is following his father’s footsteps in the world of white-collar crime, he throws it back in her face by pointing out that she sure loved the standard of living afforded to her by her late husband’s crimes. Of course, it’s likely most of that standard of living came from his successful business with only a small part consisting of misused funds, but it doesn’t matter to Tommy, because he takes every possible opportunity to be shitty. Does he have even an iota of remorse for the felony he committed? Nope. The fact that he’s guilty isn’t even in dispute. He thinks his motive to keep Ojai under his family’s control is all the explanation he needs. I wouldn’t mind unlikable characters as much if there was even a glimmer of depth on display here, but it is not to be.
  • Rich white people problems. Look, it’s not like shows about rich people can’t be glamorous, interesting or entertaining. Just look at Dynasty, Mad Men or Arrested. The problem is that Brothers is none of these things, so the viewers get to enjoy a bunch of whining about relatable problems like a failing gubernatorial campaign and getting caught embezzling. The details of Tommy’s embezzlement are a thrill ride of shell companies and shady land deals, which is obviously the essence of water cooler television. There’s a very telling and interesting moment in “Spring,” but I really don’t think the writers intended for it to have thematic resonance–instead it’s carrying water for two separate plot threads. The moment I’m talking about is an argument between Kitty and Ryan over Marxist theories on family. The first purpose this serves in the plot is to remind onlooker Sarah of what it looks like when Kitty is trying to bond to add fuel to her later conversation with Robert. The actual conversation mostly involves them talking past each other and saying little of substance, and we’re quickly delivered to the second plot purpose as Kitty waxes poetic about the deep bond between her and her newborn baby. This serves to send Ryan off in tears with passions inflamed about the mysterious death of his mother. The show predictably elides any actual Marxist theories of family, and they prove surprisingly relevant to Brothers. In a nutshell, Marx saw the traditional nuclear family as an institution designed both to maintain class hierarchy and social control. Indeed, the whole dumb plotline everyone finds themselves enmeshed in here is all about Tommy flaunting the law in order to keep Ojai and all the money it generates in the family. Every family member dutifully lines up behind him. None think he should be punished for breaking the law. They bend over backwards to try and keep him from experiencing any consequences, bringing all their social capital to bear. This is despite the fact that he’s constantly treating them all like garbage. This is despite the fact that he doesn’t show an iota of gratitude, much less remorse. No one says that they do this because it will keep them wealthy. That would be vulgar. Instead, they put up with Tommy’s wheelbarrows full of bullshit all in the name of family. He’s our brother, so we’re therefore obligated to defend his odious behavior and get him out of trouble–and the unspoken risk is getting cut out of the money pool. This isn’t to say that they don’t also love him and want the best for him. The thing about toxic social institutions is that they tend to propagate themselves and do their dirty work without the workers even realizing it’s happening. The argument as shown in “Spring” winds up being about the “artificial” bond between mothers and children, which is an obviously stupid strawman, so, again, I doubt any Brothers writers are taking Marx & Engels seriously. The embezzlement plotline isn’t the only evidence of the Walkers as an organization designed to perpetuate their own wealth–at the start of the show, beloved patriarch William Walker (Tom Skerritt, Alien) employs not one, not two, but three of his family members. In the episode after “Spring” where Sarah takes Tommy’s place at the business, it’s framed as a glorious return, only sweetened by the Walkers coaxing the board into dropping the charges. The nadir of this insufferable plot is when Nora joyously compares this “miracle” to a little girl’s leukemia going into remission. You’ve got to be fucking kidding me. Of course, the object of Tommy’s scheming is Ojai’s CEO and William’s former mistress, Holly. This, combined with Ryan and Rebecca, highlights the show’s bizarre focus on legitimate patrilineal distribution of wealth. The more you think about it, the more it comes across as decidedly medieval. It’s even worse when you remember that eldest son Tommy begrudges both Holly and Nora access to William’s wealth. That’s how sexism, the family and capitalism collide, not some nonsense about the artifice of motherhood, or whatever the fuck. It’s an almost perfect irony that a pristine case study in the art of normalizing capitalist conceptions of family contains an interlude of arguing against that theory, but I’m choosing to believe it’s incompetence and not malice. Here’s hoping, anyway. One final note: it’s not just the Walkers who see nepotism as a god-given right in the quest for filthy lucre. Guess where Rebecca works? Go on, you’ll never guess.
  • Repetitive. It’s not a great sign when you’ve already run out of ideas by Season 3. The big embezzling storyline that’s sucking all the air out of the room is not even the first big embezzling storyline on the show–that would be the fallout from the dramatic revelation of William’s embezzling in Season 1. Ryan is also not the first illegitimate child contended with in the Walker family–a large chunk of the first season was taken up by the entrance of Rebecca, who was first presented as William’s illegitimate daughter with Holly. In Season 2, another Dramatic Revelation established that Rebecca is in fact the daughter of one David Caplan (Ken Olin, Thirtysomething.) Oh, so all that time spent keeping the Dramatic Revelation of Rebecca’s existence from various members of the Walker family a Big Secret was a waste of time? Yup. As was all that time spent reluctantly and gradually integrating her into the family circle. And what’s the payoff? Why, we get to do all that stupid bullshit all over again with Ryan! And because Ryan and Rebecca aren’t related, that means that they can enjoy sexual tensionI And that means that Ryan and Justin can fight! YAAAAAAAAAY

Motivation: I’m sure it will shock you to learn that a show called Brothers & Sisters is driven by stories about family.

Final Episode Judgment: 5/10. Despite its many flaws, Brothers meets the basic criteria of an entertaining soap opera, but it doesn’t do so particularly gracefully. There are plenty of better prime-time soaps out there. As far as the other episodes I watched for research, the pilot also merits a 5/10 and “Taking Sides” and “Missing” only deserve a 4/10.

NEXT TIME: Will I ever get sick of reviewing children’s television? Find out when I check out We Bare Bears!

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Case Study 23: Brothers & Sisters, Episode 58–“Spring Broken”