Watching Showtime’s new original series Brotherhood is a frustrating experience. Is it possible to request a do-over? Can we hand over the promising elements of the series to a different creative team and hope for the best? Alas, this is the version we’re stuck with, for better and – more often – for worse.
The premise is a tantalizing blend of crime story and civic drama – a sort of cross between The Sopranos and The Wire, to use examples from Showtime’s direct competitor. This is not a comparison that holds up to much scrutiny, however, as both HBO series boast levels of depth and complexity that Brotherhood doesn’t begin to approach.
Jason Clarke and Jason Isaacs star as the Caffee brothers, Tommy and Michael respectively. Tommy is a Rhode Island state representative and an up-and-comer in the world of Providence politics. Michael is a gangster who disappeared years earlier after a beef with rival Patty Mullen. Not long after Mullen is murdered, Michael returns to Providence, hoping to reclaim his territory and reassert his place in the Caffee clan.
The set-up seems inspired by the real-life Bulger brothers of Boston: Billy, the former President of the Massachusetts State Senate, and Whitey, the boss of the Irish mob and current member of the FBI’s Ten Most Wanted list. The glad-handing cronyism and old school corruption of Providence city politics have also been well-documented, notably in Mike Stanton’s biography of ex-mayor Buddy Cianci, The Prince of Providence. It’s a rich subject and a colorful setting for a multi-character serial drama, but the ambitions of creator and executive producer Blake Masters dwarf his knack for compelling storytelling and character development.
The series gets off on the wrong foot from the opening scene, which consists of two tough guys screaming obscenities and racial epithets at each other right before one beats the other to death. It’s designed to grab your attention and rub your face in the fact that this is going to be an edgy pay-cable show that breaks all the rules, but it plays almost as a Sopranos parody. Viewers who found the most recent season of HBO’s seminal gangster opera too contemplative and lacking in whacking may have found what they’re looking for here.
There’s nothing too subtle about Michael’s side of the story. He ingratiates himself with crime boss Freddie Cork (Kevin Chapman) through his earning skills and wins the heart of a young co-ed by cutting an ear off the thug who assaulted her. (He later presents her with a gift box containing new earrings along with the severed ear, proving he’s a romantic at heart.) All the while he is looking to consolidate his power by assembling a team of loyal soldiers and staying one step ahead of his childhood friend, Providence cop Declan Giggs (Ethan Embry).
Tommy hopes to become prince of the city in a more legitimate fashion, though he is not above back room wheeling and dealing. He represents “The Hill,” a working class Irish neighborhood, and his days consist of “not in my backyard” tasks like directing a highway spur out of his district and helping to settle a garbage strike. Tommy is not quite as ethically pure as he would like people to believe; his state salary is a pittance, so he’s trying to use his clout and connections to further his real estate career. The political power brokers hope to groom him for bigger things, but Tommy has a stubborn streak and is reluctant to play ball.
Brotherhood is at its best when it sticks to the ins and outs of city politics; it can be fascinating to watch one hand washing the other before reaching into yet another pocket. It’s unfortunate that the mob element, which should add spice to a complex narrative stew, is so hackneyed and cartoonish. The biggest miscalculation Masters makes is trying to inflate the proceedings into some kind of biblical allegory of Cain and Abel. (All of the episodes are named for Bible verses, each of which no doubt illuminates the given hour’s theme, if anyone wants to be bothered looking them up.) There’s endless droning about The Importance of Family, the sort of thing The Sopranos undercuts so well, but which is played deadly straight here. As the Caffee matriarch Rose, Fionnula Flanagan is the most egregious offender, serving up her homilies with heaping helpings of blarney.
As far as the lead Jasons go, Clarke lacks the charisma to get us emotionally invested in Tommy, overplaying the character’s sanctimonious side. He’s rather humorless, a flaw he shares with the show as a whole. Isaacs is menacing enough, but he doesn’t do much to transcend his standard-issue wiseguy role. Faring worst of all may be Annabeth Gish as the quintessential long-suffering politician’s wife Eileen, whose inner life is basically nonexistent. (After the fifteenth time she hides in the bathroom to smoke a joint and break down weeping, you’ll be ready to do the same.)
Although Brotherhood is shot entirely on location in Providence, it only sporadically captures the flavor of the city. It’s a missed opportunity to use a distinctive setting as a major character in the piece, the way The Wire does with Baltimore. Instead we get occasional glimpses of the capitol dome or the waterfront, and a few locals in bit parts, while the primary cast members struggle with phony New England accents. In terms Tommy Caffee could understand, Brotherhood needs to be sent back to committee for reconsideration.