After a night of Irish Whiskey, Judge Adam Arseneau submitted this review with a sticky note on the outside saying "Me fekkin' review. Erin go Brágh."
The city has two sons. Only one can rule The Hill.
After being beaten in the ratings by crime shows like HBO's The Sopranos time and again, what's a cable network like Showtime to do? Why, come up with its own dramatic crime series, of course. Enter Brotherhood: The Complete First Season, a brooding Irish mob family serial where politics, crime, and family intertwine.
Facts of the Case
Tommy Caffee (Jason Clarke, Farscape) is a state representative for The Hill, an Irish neighborhood in Providence, Rhode Island. As an underpaid servant of the people, Tommy struggles with financial obligations for his family, but isn't above bending a few rules in order to grease his palms with some money on the side. His mother MaryRose (Fiona C. Erickson) is a proud, outspoken Irish mother who mourns the loss of Tommy's mobster brother, Michael (Jason Isaacs, Lucius Malfoy from the Harry Potter films), who has been missing for seven years and presumed dead.
Suddenly, Michael returns home as if nothing happened. His re-emergence throws everyone's life into chaos, especially when he returns to his old lifestyle, joining up with established mobster Freddi Cork and beginning to assemble his own crew on the side. Tommy's wife has alcohol and drug problems, and spirals unnoticed into a depressed haze of drugs and loneliness. Tommy's political future is put at risk as his interests on the political hill constantly clash and meld with his brother's street-level activities, especially when the police have Michael under constant investigation.
All 11 episodes from the first season are included on Brotherhood: The Complete First Season:
• "Mark 8:36"
• "Genesis 27:29"
• "Matthew 13:57"
• "Matthew 5:6"
• "Matthew 12:25"
• "Samyutta 11:10"
• "Genesis 27:39"
• "Job 31:5-6"
• "Ecclesiastes 7:2"
• "Vivekachudamani: 51"
• "Matthew 22:10"
It is impossible to sit through Brotherhood and not compare it to another notable cable crime show, which may be exactly what Showtime set out to achieve. Think of Brotherhood as the Irish Rhode Island flipside to HBO's Italian New Jersey Sopranos, even pandering to the same target audience. Once you get into the show, however, you begin to realize that such comparisons only go so deep.
Unlike the Soprano family, things are less than glamorous for the Caffee family. Money tortures the characters in Brotherhood and causes them to behave very, very badly, in a drunken Irish sort of way. There is no subtlety, only savagery and cutthroat ambitions dancing between the politics of government and organized crime—or to put it more accurately, repeatedly pointing out the lack of differences between the two. Tommy's rise to political power mirrors Michael's merciless ascent through the Irish mob; as Michael's swath through The Hill causes more and more trouble for Tommy, he begins to emulate the worst aspects of his brother.
Life in Brotherhood is a power struggle in all elements of life, from husband and wife, mother and son, brother to brother, and politician to mobster. The characters repeatedly stress the importance of family, but this is often the first thing to be mortgaged in the face of achieving one's own personal goals. The only character that seems to have any principals at all is Tommy. Torn between his love for his district and his own personal ambitions, he puts his family above all else, making him a complex persona (and probably the only genuinely worthwhile individual on the show). Almost without exception, everyone else lies, cheats, and steals whenever they can, making Brotherhood a challenging show to identify with at times.
Tommy might be the only semi-decent individual on The Hill, but Tommy's brother is another story altogether. Michael's calculated and ruthless ascent to power is kind of frightening. He's got a two-faced serial killer thing going on, and it can be pretty intense. As one character remarks early on, Michael is a tornado—he swallows up everything in his wake and spits it out broken. But like his brother, he loves his city, loves the Hill, possibly even above and beyond the rest of his vices, and may even be a decent human being underneath all the grime. He seems to take no joy in his particular profession—it's his job, nothing more—and does not revel in the glamour of it. He may be a lowlife thug, but his ego is in check, unlike Tommy's.
Where Brotherhood deviates from other, stronger shows is its preoccupation with situational drama over character development. The brilliance of strong serial dramas is not the subject matter, but the subtle character development that occurs throughout. On such well-written shows, characters could go grocery shopping for an hour and we would still be fascinated by the subtle nuances and character development. For some reason, Brotherhood wants to cram every moment with drama and tension and aggravating situations for its protagonists, leaving little opportunity for subtlety. Usually, this means characters only evolve one way—straight down. Ironically, this overload of situational drama and tense situations does not really translate into a noticeable plot arc for the season, as there is little to distinguish one episode from the next. You could summarize every episode the same way: Michael does tough gangster stuff, while Tommy fights a political battle at work and his wife acts crazy. It makes for solid television on an episode-by-episode basis, but kind of redundant and unfulfilling over the long term.
There is enough to like in Brotherhood to maintain interest but, I admit, I didn't quite take to the show. A lot of the dialogue is pretty atrocious, straight from B-film corniness ("I don't point out rats…I stomp on 'em") and most of the protagonists are genuinely unpleasant and unlikable, making it difficult to connect to them or even care about their fates. For Showtime, it is a strong show, but Brotherhood has an uphill battle over the long term compared to all the other excellent television on the airwaves these days.
Brotherhood looks good on DVD, with a clean transfer, decent black levels, and a washed-out color palate. The image quality is nice, but the transfer suffers from excessive softness at times. We get a very nice 5.1 surround track, as well as two stereo tracks, one in English and one in Spanish. When compared back-to-back, the tracks are virtually identical, with low bass response, and excellent preservation of ambient and environmental noises, but unusually muffled and indistinct dialogue—you will be playing the remote control volume game quite a bit. The lack of subtitles only compounds this fact.
In terms of extras, Brotherhood is a bit thin. One episode contains a mediocre commentary track with Blake Masters and Henry Bromell, executive producers and writers, discussing the show's intentions and structure and sharing some behind-the-scene information about filming. We also get a photo gallery, some cast bios, and a Power Map; an interactive graphical guide to the relationships and power struggles going on in Brotherhood. It's a nice feature, if an unnecessary one—most viewers should be able to follow the events without aid.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
If there is such a thing as a show being "emotionally incestuous," then Brotherhood would fit the bill, because everyone is in bed with everyone. It's dark and brooding, with little to laugh about on The Hill, and nobody is particularly likeable or sympathetic. Everyone is selfish, self-obsessed, cowardly, and malicious towards one another, which makes this a difficult show to put any long-term prospects into. And with a title like Brotherhood, it is hardly a surprise to find the show is more than a little misogynistic towards women. Almost without exception, all the women on the show are whores and cheats and drug addicts and have violent tempers, except of course for the mother, who is a "saint"—very Freudian, in a "complete crap" sort of way.
Frankly, with jerks like these, I don't want to get to know anyone better.
Brotherhood has a well-realized (if entirely unlikable) cast of characters, an appealing blend of political drama and gangsters and a brooding, slow-moving style bound to appeal to those who fancy the serial cable drama. Sure, it's no Sopranos, but Brotherhood connects enough blows to the jaw to have an impact with viewers—for now. Where the show goes from here will determine whether it has any staying power.
There is enough to like about Brotherhood to make it a serviceable drama on cable television, but only if better shows weren't on.
Give us your feedback!
What's "fair"? Whether positive or negative, our reviews should be unbiased, informative, and critique the material on its own merits.
Scales of Justice
Studio: Showtime Entertainment
• Audio Commentary with Executive Producers Black Masters and Henry Bromell
Review content copyright © 2006 Adam Arseneau; Site design and review layout copyright © 2014 Verdict Partners LLC. All rights reserved.