"Brother's Keeper" slipped quietly onto ABC's Friday night TGIF lineup in the fall. Those critics who even noticed it largely dismissed it--a '90s variation on the TV classic "The Odd Couple" that turns on the conflict between two brothers--one strait-laced, the other out of control--who are suddenly forced to share a home.
But the show has become one of the surprises of the network's prime-time schedule. On a night where ABC programming is generally aimed at a young audience, "Brother's Keeper," which follows the popular "Sabrina, the Teenage Witch," has been winning its 9:30 p.m. time period in just about all the ways Nielsen Media Research dices the ratings numbers: households, adults 18-34, adults 18-49, teens and kids.
In a move to attract even more viewers, and to see how well the show might perform on other nights, ABC will triple-pump it this week beginning tonight at 8:30, with a new episode airing Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. and yet another in its usual Friday spot.
Set in Northern California, the series follows the Waide household, which includes Porter, a very uptight history professor played by William Ragsdale, and Porter's son Oscar, played by Justin Cooper, who first charmed audiences opposite Jim Carrey in "Liar, Liar." The newest member of the household is Bobby (Sean O'Bryan), a wild man/pro football kicker whose antics have put his career in jeopardy unless his respectable brother will take him in.
That "Brother's Keeper" has been successful in bringing back viewers that had largely turned off of ABC's youth-oriented programming is in part due to the balancing act that keeps the series operating on two levels. Each week, there are interwoven plot lines, one geared to the younger set and revolving around Oscar, the other linked to the more adult tangles that Bobby invariably gets into.
Yet undoubtedly much of "Brother's Keeper's" growing popularity is due to the aggressive efforts to feature high-profile guest stars. Basketball star Karl Malone and ABC's "Monday Night Football's" broadcast team have already appeared. Elizabeth Berkley will star in Wednesday night's episode and a late season entry features Bill Maher from "Politically Incorrect" jousting with former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger.
But there was a special feeling of anticipation in the air last week as the cast gathered for the initial reading of a new episode. When the reading began, Ragsdale and O'Bryan were seated next to Tony Randall and Jack Klugman, the stars of the original "Odd Couple," which aired on ABC from 1970-75.
The episode, titled "An Odd Couple of Days," is scheduled for the February sweeps, one of the periods in which prime-time series must prove their mettle. Given the continuing popularity (in syndication) of the original "Odd Couple," the presence of Randall and Klugman should guarantee substantial interest.
The script, by "Brother's Keeper" creator Donald Todd, was crafted to play to the unique interaction between each pair of actors. Consider this Randall and Klugman exchange, for example:
Randall, reading a fax Klugman is about to send, was distressed: "Right away you've split an infinitive."
"What?" Klugman says.
" 'We would like you to really try hard. . .,' " Randall read. "You can't split 'to try.' "
"Why not?" Klugman asks.
"You just can't. It's a rule," Randall replies.
"From who?" Klugman says.
" 'Whom,' " Randall corrects.
The timing between Randall and Klugman, even at a cold first reading, was impeccable.
Todd, who also executive produces the show, also believes the rising number of boomer stay-at-homes is helping to drive "Brother's Keeper's" audience upward.
"[It was a] conscious decision [by ABC] to put a program on that appeals not just to teens and kids but also to young adults and to the crucial 18-34 and the 18-49-year-old audience," says Ken Solomon, president of Studios USA Television, which produces "Brother's Keeper." The strategy seems to be helping the entire night. "TGIF is up 16% as a whole versus a year ago," he says, "and our show is up 23%."
But with a big investment in, and successful results from, its TGIF franchise, was ABC taking a chance by scheduling a broader-based show on Friday? Carolyn Ginsburg Carlson, who oversees the network's comedy series, thinks not.
"If you look at the history of TGIF shows--thinking back to the days of 'Bosom Buddies' or 'Perfect Strangers'--'Brother's Keeper' is really a very classic buddy comedy," she says. "And one of our goals for Friday night was to make sure that we were beginning to attract adults, without losing sight of our efforts to keep our younger audience."
Solomon sees "Brother's Keeper" as a kind of "ambassador for the new TGIF."
"There are a lot of people who watch ABC on Tuesday and Wednesday who don't normally watch ABC on Friday," Solomon says. "If they take the time to look at one of our episodes on Tuesday or Wednesday night [this week], they'll find that the character relationships on 'Brother's Keeper' are not all that dissimilar from what you might see on 'Dharma & Greg.' "
* "Brother's Keeper" airs on ABC on Fridays at 9:30 p.m., with additional episodes this week only, airing tonight and Wednesday at 8:30 p.m. The network has rated it TV-G (suitable for all ages).
"If you look at the history of TGIF shows--thinking back to the days of 'Bosom Buddies' or 'Perfect Strangers'--'Brother's Keeper' is really a very classic buddy comedy."
CAROLYN GINSBURG CARLSON