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This mob story works the old-fashioned way

Compelling characters, believable storylines. `Brotherhood' scores by going back to the basics.

July 08, 2006|Robert Lloyd | Times Staff Writer

An 11-part series that begins Sunday night on Showtime, "Brotherhood" tells the story -- or rather gathers together the small stories that make up a big story -- of two brothers, one a politician, one a mobster, and of their friends, families, neighbors, colleagues and enemies. It has a novelistic scope and pace, a fine sense of place, characters that are compelling without being ostentatiously extreme and whose reality the script does not betray for an easy effect or to make cultural or political points about things that have nothing to do with their lives.

In a time when willful eccentricity, self-conscious style and pop-cultural knowingness dominate TV drama, it is refreshingly straightforward and unaffected, radical by virtue of being old-fashioned. In its emphasis on character over plot it reminds me of movies from the pre-Spielberg '70s, and is in so many ways what I want from television that I feel almost like phoning each of you personally to deliver the news.

It is not stunningly original, as attested to by the fact that one can describe it, not inaccurately, as an "Irish 'Sopranos'," and it is in a long tradition of brother-against-brother stories that certainly goes back further than Cain and Abel's "God always liked you best" routine. Also time-honored is the story of the wild prodigal whose return to town sets off an unfortunate series of events. (Though "Brotherhood" is set in the relatively large city of Providence, R.I., it is more particularly set in the virtual small town of a working-class Irish neighborhood called "The Hill.")

It also has deep roots in the Irish gangster films and social dramas of the Warner Brothers 1930s -- it wasn't until "The Godfather" that movie mobsters were reliably Italian -- and without too much tweaking one can imagine Jimmy Cagney and Pat O'Brien speaking this dialogue. There's a bit of "Dead End" in it as well. That it's inspired by Boston's real-life Bulger brothers, William (former president of the Massachusetts Senate, and of the University of Massachusetts) and James, still on the FBI's most-wanted list, does not make it any less literary.

And yet "Brotherhood" seems fresh nearly all the time. A thoroughgoing naturalism smooths its rough spots, improves its dialogue, keeps it from falling into cliche, moderates the melodrama toward which its premise naturally impels it. It has a quality of transparency that lets you into what feels like an actual world; the form does not obscure the content. Improbable things do happen in "Brotherhood," and not every action has the consequences one would reasonably expect. But it is all played believably. Even when it gets hard to follow, it feels like a conversation you can't quite understand, rather than a load of nonsense that the writers did not sufficiently work out.

As in "The Sopranos" and Dennis Leary's "Rescue Me" -- another show involved with Irish-American family dysfunction, anger issues and alcoholism -- it is pervaded by nostalgia and suspicion. Its characters are almost mystically reverent toward their roots and toward an Old Country in which they would never actually want to live; they are old enough to hate change, clannish often to the point of racism, and are wondering where the good times have gone. The neighborhood is deteriorating, becoming a target for NIMBY projects.

The Caffee brothers -- Tommy, the political brother (played by Jason Clarke, of "Rabbit-Proof Fence"), and Michael, the criminal (Jason Isaacs, who plays villain Lucius Malfoy in the "Harry Potter" movies) -- each regards himself as protector of the Hill, even as each is poised to help destroy it. We are meant to feel that Tommy is not as good a person as he thinks, that his desire to help his constituency is inextricable from his personal quest for power -- and that Michael, despite his being a murderer, a thief and extortionist among other things, is not without a code. (It's a difficult code for those around him to read at times, and one he might himself interpret as convenient from case to case.) He sees himself as a good son, brother and uncle, and he is not entirely wrong.

Isaacs' is only the most obviously splendid performance in a uniformly brilliant cast that also includes Annabeth Gish as Tommy's depressed, drugaddicted, unfaithful wife (significantly, in a show so concerned with a fading past, she's sleeping with someone from high school); Fionnula Flanagan as the Caffee boys' mother; Ethan Embry as a police officer who's also a conflicted family friend; Stivi Paskoski as Michael's right hand and Tina Benko as his old flame.

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