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Television | REVIEW

Not simply another act of desperation

`Brothers & Sisters' tackles real issues -- a bunch of 'em -- while `Housewives' keeps reshaking its insular world.

September 24, 2006|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

"BROTHERS & Sisters" stars Calista Flockhart as a really sweet, emotionally available right-wing pundit. The show, a family melodrama about the Walkers of California (I'm guessing Agoura Hills, but you could tell me Valencia and I wouldn't quibble) represents ABC's attempt to keep the women vote strong on Sunday night, after its boldest chess move of the off-season, putting "Grey's Anatomy" on Thursdays to compete against "CSI."

Back in Sunday-night-land, "Desperate Housewives" premieres its third season as an enviable hit that is, somehow, old news. There have been changes to the writing staff (Joe Keenan, veteran of "Frasier," was hired, also Jeff Greenstein off of "Will & Grace" and "Friends") amid a sense that the show lost track of the satirical whodunit formula that first made it a titillating cocktail.

"Desperate Housewives" has from the start been a light comedic mystery teasing Tupperware Nation, with bipartisan eye candy. The network sent out tonight's premiere to critics early (it's not like they gave us "Lost"). The worry for ABC is that Sundays are no longer hearth-like, what with "Grey's" making money on Thursday and NBC showing up with Sunday night's "Football Night in America" followed by, you know, three more hours of football in prime time. In households all across America, one pictures a skirmish of the sexes, the loser having to take the fourth TV in the spare bedroom.

In a perfect world you would have been able to put Flockhart in "Desperate" and expanded each episode to two hours. Think of the publicity, hear that voice-over: Flockhart, the newest arrival on Wisteria Lane, all moony-eyed at the kitchen table, in a robe, having just poisoned her doltish husband because it annoyed her one too many times, the way he hummed while he read the funnies.

Flockhart could even go on talking to the husband, unloading a marriage's worth of grievances as the neighbors begin to smell something; this would be her introductory character arc and we'd love her for it.

Instead ABC had to build an entirely new wing for her on Sunday night, find her a new crop of friends.

On the horribly titled "Brothers & Sisters" she is Kitty Walker, the golden-child-who-went-to-New York-and-has-now-come-back to her extended clan. They include Sally Field as her mother, Tom Skerritt as her father, Rachel Griffiths as her sister and Ron Rifkin as her Jewish Uncle Saul, which is confusing since the Walkers are obviously not temple people.

The pilot has a "Steel Magnolias" feel to it: Too many stars, too many faces, too many names, a cornucopia of character business. Griffiths, last seen in "Six Feet Under," is in a sexless marriage; Skerritt is skimming funds from the company, presumably to pay off a "mystery woman" (Patricia Wettig), forcing Rifkin's Uncle Saul to move money around (he's good with the money). Field, as an emotionally fragile mother, is very present, as you might expect, particularly in scenes where she and Flockhart butt heads over politics.

None of the Walkers look like a fellow Walker, except maybe the boys -- Kevin, a gay yuppie lawyer (Matthew Rhys); Tommy, "the loyal son yet charming womanizer" (Balthazar Getty); and Justin (Dave Annable), the youngest son, who went off to fight in Afghanistan post-9/11, with Kitty's full sisterly, Republican support. Now he's manifesting some post-traumatic stress, although he pulls it together enough each morning to put product in his hair so that it looks bed-head-ish.

"Brothers & Sisters" was created by playwright Jon Robin Baitz, which might have mollified Flockhart, who has a theater background.

Flockhart still isn't talking to the press, but it seems to me she chose this role partly to get back at the insane attention she got as a TV star -- what for her became the creepy, assumed intimacy that resulted in people caring how much she weighed.

*

A rare 'issues' drama

FOR Flockhart, then, it would be simple math: Kill off Ally by playing Ann Coulter.

Not that Kitty is nearly that obnoxious, nor icy-scary. She's more plucky naif who surprises you on a first date by revealing she's "tough on crime, big on defense, America first, old-fashioned." Professionally, she's someone for whom "politics is not about show business." Kitty has a satellite radio show in New York, we're to believe (because we don't hear it), and she's back home interviewing for the right-wing talking head position on a "Crossfire"-type series.

There's a boy involved in Kitty's life, a fiance, but the pilot makes him a drone: The real romance is between the independent woman and the bonds of family, between the demure intellect and the rough-and-tumble world of entertainment politics.

"Brothers & Sisters" has reportedly been "troubled." This happens when you futz with a show (Field replaced Betty Buckley as the mother, and then Marti Noxon, one of the executive producers, quit, replaced by Greg Berlanti of "Everwood").

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