Is Showtime’s new Brotherhood series ambitious? Or is it safe? In other words, for the pay-cable channel still waiting for a breakout show to make it must-subscribe TV, will Brotherhood’s sweeping blend of municipal politics, family dysfunction, criminal mischief and prodigal-son drama set it apart in the minds of discerning viewers looking for more novelistic, social-fabric density? Or will the audience see it as one more East Coast potboiler with violence, deal-making and corruption — an Irish-mob version of The Sopranos crossed with a Providence, Rhode Island, version of The Wire?
It’s a little of both, actually. Brotherhood thrives on its mythic familiarity, but also on its relevance to the forgotten working class of today and the illusion of political independence. You might think you’ve seen this story before, and yet you haven’t seen it quite this way. The good brother/bad brother element, for instance — Tommy Caffee (Jason Clarke) as an up-and-coming state politician with noble intentions, versus older sib and gangster Michael (Jason Isaacs) — has been well-mined narrative fodder from Cain and Abel through Bruce Springsteen’s song “Highway Patrolman.” But the writers and cast of Brotherhood wisely treat their age-old setup as if it were freshly plucked fruit, and everyone bites into its possibilities with such vigor that you can practically hear the chomping. The show almost dares you not to be on pins and needles for that crucial moment in the pilot episode when the Caffees’ ritual Sunday dinner with Tommy’s extended family — wife, sister, brother-in-law, mother — is interrupted by the sudden reappearance of blue-eyed killer Michael after seven years in hiding.
As you may have guessed, it’s a reunion fraught with possibilities for both men. Tommy is a hard-nosed representative for his commercially depressed, white Irish district of Providence, called “The Hill” (which has a nice sweat-and-struggle ring to it), and he prides himself on how strongly he fights for his constituency in a time of shuttered factories, bolder race politics and gentrification.
“The smoke-filled backroom, the sweetheart deal, the insider handshake, those are the old ways,” he grandly intones to a room of supporters at a fund-raiser, mere seconds after he’s made a secret tradeoff with a colleague from a wealthier district to help stop a highway spur being routed through The Hill, destroying homes. It’s a bitter twist on the backroom deal, in which your own progress sometimes means keeping other people’s progress out.
Michael doesn’t like how bad things have gotten in the old neighborhood either, since he’s been avoiding the law’s and his enemies’ reach, but his peculiar brand of civic-minded underworld activity — for example, taking over a general store from the owner who’s been overcharging the elderly locals by threatening to kill her brother — spotlights the difference in how each brother wants to save the community from economic oblivion. Everything is kicked off in the opening minutes with the killing, in broad daylight, of a corrupt union bagman at the hands of a racially provoked African-American construction worker: the victim was an enforcer for a corrupt union boss named Freddie Cork (Kevin Chapman), and with him out of the way the stage is set for Michael’s resurfacing. But suddenly Tommy is faced with two problems: The ensuing race-based media storm threatens to expose his shady arrangement with the black-owned construction crew (Tommy “suggested” they hire his dopey brother-in-law’s law firm), while his carefully cultivated image as an upright political hero could be damaged by brother Michael reasserting himself as a criminal antihero.
Needless to say, the things that make Tommy and Michael interesting are their weaknesses, which for Tommy include a hesitant desire to line his own pockets and make his shit-paying elected office feel a little more worthwhile, and for the quick-to-harm Michael include a soft streakfor those in need. To that end, Brotherhood has two firm lead actors in Clarke and Isaacs, men who can call up their bulldog nature with lightning speed, but who can easily revert to lost-little-boy mode when confronted with the limitations of their abilities. Isaacs in particular seems to be channeling De Niro at his most charmingly growly and vulnerable: His knockout performance is like the best kind of homage to the brutally appealing rogues of our gangster-culture consciousness.
Of course, Tommy and Michael love each other and hate each other, mistrust each other but secretly protect each other, and the aim of Brotherhood is to get us to view political machinations and criminal enterprise as — big surprise — two sides of the same coin. “You’re not the only person taking care of The Hill,” Freddie Cork tells Tommy at one point. So for every good result — money for a community center, hoopla to save a run-down theater — there’s something nasty in the trail to its achievement. But what’s often invigorating about the blue-gray aura of Brotherhood — which makes excellent location-shooting use of Providence’s row-house landscapes and industrial barrenness — is that sometimes nothing gets accomplished for all the threats, bruised feelings and deception. The seesawing outcomes and the suspense of who will get tainted and who will rise above is pretty much how Brotherhood plays out over the season. But there are thoughtful residual dramas, too, including a moral quandary for Tommy’s old high school chum Declan (Ethan Embry), now a detective investigating the Caffees, and the depression Tommy’s wife, Eileen (Annabeth Gish), feels in the role of show wife and mother, which leads to some ill-advised illicit adventures. Then there’s the Caffee boys’ white-haired firebrand of a mother character, Rose — played at the edge of caricature by Fionnula Flanagan — whose solution to being given an envelope of counterfeit money by her beloved Michael is one of the pilot’s more blackly hilarious moments, and perhaps all you need to know about why her sons turned out the way they did.
Film guy Phillip Noyce (Clear and Present Danger, The Quiet American) directed this Sunday’s pilot, and it doesn’t feel a whole lot like the rest of the season: Noyce has a dynamic visual style of camera movement and wide-angle close-ups that at times is unnecessary augmentation to an already sharp, clever, pointed script by creator/executive producer Blake Masters. But it makes for a punchy debut episode to a gripping new series, one that longtime Sopranos fans may find more satisfying in its emotional payoffs than the sometimes hollow half-dramas in that New Jersey clan’s most recent season. Brotherhood is vividly drawn, intelligently acted, and for all the occasional dialogue lapses (of the “I’m nothing like you” school of writing), this is a mosaic of manipulation, tortured duty and familial hand-wringing that at its best recalls the heyday of big-city corruption auteur Sidney Lumet.?
BROTHERHOOD | Showtime | Sundays, 10 p.m.