Tom Shales, Style Columnist

ABC's 'Brothers & Sisters': A Series So Sensitive It Hurts

Balthazar Getty, from left, Rachel Griffiths, Dave Annable and Calista Flockhart are among the brothers and sisters of
Balthazar Getty, from left, Rachel Griffiths, Dave Annable and Calista Flockhart are among the brothers and sisters of "Brothers & Sisters." (Photos By Scott Garfield -- Abc)
By Tom Shales
Washington Post Staff Writer
Saturday, September 23, 2006

"Brothers & Sisters," which conspicuously co-stars Sally Field and Calista Flockhart, is one of those "sensitive" family dramas that virtually require "sensitive" be put in "quotes" when one "talks" about "it."

The show, premiering on ABC tomorrow night, aches with sensitivity, throbs with sensitivity and reeks of sensitivity. Nudgingly poignant piano music, or the soft wail of an angst-ridden ballad, creeps onto the soundtrack now and then to convince you that what you're seeing is somehow affecting.

Affected, yes, but affecting? Not yet.

Inconveniently for critics but encouragingly for die-hard optimists, the show was apparently still being tinkered with up to the last minute, so that the version submitted for review might differ in some details from the one that airs. Unless it differs in every single detail, however, "Brothers & Sisters" will still constitute a clear-cut invitation to click that little channel clicker as fast as your fingers can fiddle with it.

If you're looking for the deep emotional truths that the creators of ABC's would-be heart-tugger imagine they're after, well, pro wrestling might be a good choice. Those creators include Ken Olin, one of the stars of dear old "thirtysomething," and playwright Jon Robin Baitz. They opened the menu for generic family dramas and took one from Column A and one from Column B, but they forgot about Column C -- where the heart is.

Whacking away at the facades of seemingly happy households to expose hatreds and hypocrisies underneath -- yawn -- is a sport for playwrights and novelists that goes back about a million years. Maybe cave families entertained one another with emotional exposés about other cave families. If they did, there must have been a Tom Skerritt look-alike there to play craggy-faced Papa Patriarch.

Skerritt plays him in the premiere of "Brothers & Sisters," doing what he has done a thousand times or more, but apparently Dad will be killed off soon, thus precipitating not only the sort of soul-searching one would expect but also a major audit as well. This is a family with a family business, although the script doesn't seem specific about what it is. I think maybe they have a raisin ranch in Ojai, up north of Santa Monica. Whatever -- when you're looking for high drama, talk of a troubled "cash flow" is just the ticket. It's a recurring topic around the obscenely opulent mansion where Mama (Field) lives and her divorced spouse keeps an office, or so it appears.

Flockhart, all 76 pounds of her, plays one of two grown daughters, a right-wing radio commentator named Kitty who's considering an offer to appear on TV. The other sister is played by Rachel Griffiths, whose gloominess eventually grew oppressive on HBO's "Six Feet Under." What was it the chorus sang about "Mame" -- that she could "coax the blues right out of the horn"? Griffiths could coax them right back in again.

The sons are no prize packages, either. There are three, and the first question that has to pop into any veteran viewer's mind has to be: "Which is the gay one?" It's spoiling nothing to tell you that "the gay one" is played by Matthew Rhys, with Balthazar Getty as an elder and Dave Annable as a younger brother. And spooky old Uncle Saul, played by Ron Rifkin, tosses a fit in the premiere when he finds two of the kids trying to get into his computer and check on the, yes, cash flow.

Meanwhile, the carefree son played by Annable comes home slightly drunk, and as punishment, Daddy schedules a meeting with him in his office for noon of the following day. Yes, it's that kind of typical American family: The father schedules meetings with his own children.

The premiere's most dramatic moment occurs about eight minutes in, when the camera pans right, away from the foyer and into the living room, and there she is, waiting to make an entrance: Sally Field, returning to television all these years after "The Flying Nun." She's still got her own sweet special radiance, and it's too bad the script doesn't deploy more of it. Instead, she says sappy things like: "So, isn't this nice? Here we all are. It's been so long."

Yes, there they all are. But it doesn't seem to have been all that long since the last sensitive drama about a troubled family whose members all have hidden secrets and who pause and stare into each other's eyes two or three times per conversation. It's all so horribly, punishingly familiar -- and constructed from a blueprint that was already starting to crinkle and crumble back when TV sets had "hue" controls and wacky old Mr. Whipple was still squeezing the Charmin.

Brothers & Sisters (one hour) debuts tomorrow night at 10 on Channel 7.

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