Monday, July 7, 2008

Recent Netflixing: Brotherhood - Season 1

Like most people who have good computer monitors with which to really take advantage of visual media, I enjoy Netflix "Watch Instantly" as a means of getting into something quick with just a click of a button. Granted, Time Warner Cable decides on occasion to slow our internet in Sunset Park to frustrating speeds where the ability to playback is hampered, but I finally was able to get through Brotherhood: Season 1 after a couple months of watching episode by episode.

Titled by particular passages from the Bible, Brotherhood is a very, very serious show. There is scarcely any humor to be found; I found myself after each episode locked into a poker-face mode. Even when characters do laugh, it is usually pensive, nervous, or faked. The severity though is well-deserved and warranted, because even though the plots and subplots of this Showtime serial have been covered before in a multitude of films, the tight production and scrappy, methodical aura it brings to the table in the first season won me over by the end.

A lot of people have described it as an Irish-American version of the Sopranos, but I think it's very different after you get past the surface plot of a family that is involved with a gangster outfit. Brotherhood has its own suburban vibe, set in Providence in a fictional district called the Hill. Michael Caffee (played with a creepy, blazing staunchness by Jason Issacs) is the violent, imposing brother who comes back to the Hill after years of absence. Tommy Caffee (the strong chin of Jason Clarke) is the family man and a district representative struggling to make ends meet but otherwise content with his situation. The Caffees are upheld to a high but vulnerable standard by the family matriarch who lives down the road from Tommy and who houses Michael upon his return, Rose Caffee. Without getting into too much detail about the great supporting cast, just know that everyone knows everyone in this town. Whether you're a politician, a cop, or a gangster, you go to the same functions, you attend the same weddings, your kids go to the same school, and you shake hands with everyone and put on a nice face. It is the way life is here. There is an intimacy to the network of characters that makes the Hill very real and very detailed. It could be affairs with old high school flames, which both Michael and Tommy's wife, Eileen, get into with respective partners. It could be the strained but genuine friendship between a cop, Giggs, and Marty, a union man knee deep in criminal activity.

The production is not flashy at all, and at some point one would think that it could be considered fairly bland or low budget compared to more stylish shows on cable. Yet, the muted tones and tight compositions by directors like Nick Gomez actually give the atmosphere a claustrophobic feel and the performances benefit from this. The violence is abrupt and unglamorous, the language terse and without meandering philosophy. There is a pervasive amount of anguish exuded by every character, and it starts to break the viewer down by the end of the season in a good way, because the plot starts to pick up when new lawmen are introduced. You realize what drives Tommy to do good by his ambition and principles, and why Michael's disruptive, and by turns naive and manipulative behavior cause such a central rift that is the heart of the show. Their mother Rose, a perpetual victim and yet, seemingly ignorant to her own son's bad deeds shrouded in her need to be a supportive mother. Eileen, drug abuser and adulterer, struggling with the life of a housewife. Pete, a sober man struggling under the psychological bullying that Michael unleashes. Giggs, a hard drinking, always-stuck-between-a-rock-and-another-rock detective who is always forced to do the wrong thing. These characters are distinctly Irish-American because of the history, the feelings of moral guilt, and an incredible sense of community with a blinded, self-destructive nature. They have permeated the town hall, the police force, and organized crime to be pillars of the neighborhood, but at the same time, there is an incredible psychological struggle and an actual political battle for the Hill. When the immigrants become the status quo, what do they struggle against but themselves?

I don't think Season 1 is perfect. There are some subplots that do not go anywhere throughout the season, or become repetitive, such as Eileen's drug use, Pete's alcoholism, and Mary Rose's (Tommy's eldest daughter) coming of age. It weighs the plot down considerably in the middle of the season. However, they all pay off at least somewhat by the last two episodes or so, and hopefully are addressed as well in Season 2 (which has not yet been released on DVD).

What is really unique about the show is the political machinations that Tommy has to juggle. Yes there have been movies about politics before, but using politics as a weapon on such a local scale with such detail and quickness makes the show very tangible. You see a microcosm of negotiations, string pulling, questionable ethics, betrayals, and under-the-surface conflicts of interest that you can't even imagine what it must be like at a larger level. Tommy tries very hard not to get sucked into power the wrong way and to stick to his principles, but his steadfast nature hurts him just as much, if not more so, than his compromises. In the end he must turn to his brother, and what you have is a very mature depiction of what it means to above all, put family first, because with a world full of uncertainty, it is the only thing you can count on.

Here is a great video summary of the show on Youtube:

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