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TELEVISION & RADIO | THE FALL TV SEASON

O 'Brother,' what art thou?

A new series from David E. Kelly boasts a wealth of acting talent but starts out failing to use it wisely.

September 24, 2003|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

Since it illuminates a problem common to almost all new TV series, it's worth noting that the first episode of David E. Kelly's "The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire," premiering tonight on CBS, is actually a slightly retooled version of what was originally intended to be the second episode: The pilot has been scrapped as contrary to the series' unfolding direction. Indeed, given television's special serial form, in which situations and relationships are refined over time as writers and actors come to better know the characters -- and one another -- all series should probably begin with the second episode, or even (though I understand this is unlikely) with the second season.

Certainly it made some sense here to skip ahead: The abandoned pilot -- which began with Randy Quaid, as police chief Hank Shaw, punching the town millionaire and ended with him hospitalizing the high school teacher who was sleeping with his niece -- exists in almost a different universe than what airs tonight. (Those story lines have gone, along with the pilot's real snow.)

And by beginning, as it were, in the midst of things, the show now hits the ground running -- though whether it's running toward anywhere worthwhile remains to be seen. At present it seems like a great waste of acting talent.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Thursday September 25, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 29 words Type of Material: Correction
Misspelled name -- Producer/writer David E. Kelley's last name was misspelled as Kelly in a review of his new series, "The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire," in Wednesday's Calendar.

The doughy Shaw brothers -- Quaid, John Carroll Lynch as mayor Garrett and Chris Penn as unemployed Waylon -- are a fairly miserable trio, though it is hard to see why, given that they are married to, respectively, Mare Winningham, Elizabeth McGovern and Ann Cusack.

I am all for giving air time to the middle-aged and miserable, the fat and/or bald, if only to strike a blow against the tyranny of the young, beautiful and smug that Kelly himself, on such shows as "Ally McBeal" and "The Practice," has done much to perpetuate. But bad company is bad company.

Hank's marriage has gone stale, perhaps because he's a cynic and a sourpuss; he watches Katie Couric for comfort. Garrett, who apparently has been mayor all his adult life, is being blackmailed by an old mistress. Brother Waylon is out of work and has duct-taped his buttocks into a more "muscular" configuration to project confidence to prospective employers. (Waylon is the most likable of the three -- and we are, I think, supposed to like them -- but all are whiners.) And together they must face the fact that "for the first time in a long time, we are perceived as vulnerable in this town." It is hard to imagine them being perceived otherwise -- or even being perceived.

That's in part because, despite establishing shots filmed in the real New Hampshire hamlet of Plymouth (pop. 6,526), the show creates neither a believable place nor community. It's claimed, for instance, that "the town's going dead," but there's no demonstration of the claim, nothing to make you feel the "there" there. In fact, the Shaws and their kin seem to have the town almost entirely to themselves. No wonder they've run it for so long.

Realism is not Kelly's strong suit, in any case. He excels at what might be called ethical melodrama; his best shows dress ideas in sexy clothes, refract the real world without really belonging to it.

"The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire," with its "regular folks" bathed in the warm colors standard for domestic TV drama and riddled with now-feel-this musical cues, is more conventional Kelly than usual -- a denatured cousin to his previous small-town series, "Picket Fences."

But apart from a few good oddball moments, it's a dreary reality created here, and when not dreary, unpleasant: For this is at bottom a story of large little men afraid of losing their perks and privileges.

Of the women, only Winningham, whose fear that she will "shrivel up" has prompted her to buy the town's shuttered movie house, has yet had much to do; McGovern and Cusack serve mainly by acting concerned.

There are some kids, too, for demographic reach. As Waylon's daughter, Angela Goethals is sympathetic. As Garrett's son, Jeff D'Agostino is acting out cosmetically (dyed hair, eyebrow rings), while his sister (Megan Henning) is sneaky and clever and paints cartoons on her father's bald head while he's asleep. She is the one to watch.

*

'The Brotherhood of Poland, New Hampshire'

Where: CBS

When: Wednesdays, 10 p.m.; premieres tonight

Rating: The network has rated the series TV-14-L,V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with advisories for coarse language and violence).

Randy Quaid...Hank Shaw

John Carroll Lynch...Garrett Shaw

Chris Penn...Waylon Shaw

Mare Winningham...Dottie Shaw

Elizabeth McGovern...Helen Shaw

Ann Cusack...Julie Shaw

Angela Goethals...Katie Shaw

Creator-writer David E. Kelley. Executive producers Kelley and Michael Pressman. Director Pressman.

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