One of the major disadvantages of being a TV critic is that sometimes we have the misfortune of being on the outskirts of the sausage factory, maybe not quite inside, but we still get too much insight as to how the wieners are made.
ABC's "Brothers & Sisters" was a show where audiences at home had a leg up on critics, in that they were able to approach the series without any awareness of the production process. Ordinary viewers didn't know about the original pilot, about the extensive recasting and reshooting, about the new showrunner recruited to steer the ship, about the awkward TV Critics press tour session where one question after another was deflected by a creative team that honestly didn't know the answer. The audience just got to meet the Walkers.
As the show began, the Walker family had some problems. It was bad enough that the family patriarch (Tom Skerritt) died at the end of the pilot, but in the episodes to come, his kids (Calista Flockhart, Balthazar Getty, Rachel Griffiths, Matthew Rhys and Dave Annable) came to discover some less than savory things about their dad's business and personal affairs. Between dealing with her late husband's mistress and the various problems with her kids (infidelity, infertility, drug addiction, the usual), it was hard for Momma Walker (Sally Field) to grieve and move forward herself, not that she didn't have several rebound relationships over the course of the year.
Series creator Jon Robin Baitz, a playwright by trade, gave the show's early episodes a sort of muddled -- yet literary -- charm, but conventional wisdom suggests "Brothers & Sisters" didn't find its voice until Greg Berlanti began running things. In the season's second half, the show often became an immensely satisfying slice of family melodramedy, mixing laughter and tears with catfights (and food fights). Along the way, the show's cast stepped up as one of TV's better ensembles, welcoming guest stars as diverse as Rob Lowe, Peter Coyote, Jenna Elfman and Margot Kidder and using most of them to fine effect.
Naturally, the "Brothers & Sisters" DVD package, in stores Tuesday (Sept. 17), makes no mention of any of the initial creative turmoil. It was my initial hope that the promised bonus episode offering "A different view of the Walkers" might be the original pilot, but instead it's "State of the Parties," which was supposed to air as the season's second episode. It's melancholic and serious in the way that the early episodes tended to be (again, pre-Berlanti) and although you can see why the network wanted a faster paced hour to keep viewers around, it's satisfying to see some gaps filled in.
The rest of the DVD featurettes grab one theme -- "Brothers & Sisters" is about family and the people behind-the-scenes are also a family -- and run it into the ground for almost a full disc of materials. It begins with "Walker Family Tree," which takes 30 minutes to demonstrate that the show's cast is like one big family, the writers are like quirky cousins and the directors are like distant relatives who only visit occasionally, but are still beloved (keep an eye out in this featurette, because I think there are one or two snippets of making-of footage from the first pilot). In case you didn't get the point, Annable, Rhys and Getty lead a rollicking tour of the set on "Behind The Scenes With The Brothers," a self-explanatory feature where the actors work awfully hard to convince viewers that they're just like brothers in real life. They also have a gag where they kick each other in the groin that makes the whole thing worth watching.
Finally, on "The Family Business," we discover (in case you didn't know) that in some cases, the "Brothers & Sisters" family is more literal than figurative. Real-life husband and wife Ken Olin and Patricia Wettig are producer-director and co-star and they're joined by son Cliff, a staff writer, and daughter Roxy, a guest star. It's all my family can do to get away on a brief vacation every once in a while.
The DVD set also includes four commentary tracks on the episodes "Matriarchy" (Ken Olin, Sarah Caplan and Balthazar Getty), "The Other Walker" (Alison Schapker, Monica Breen, Marc Guggenheim, Dave Annable and Emily VanCamp), "Affairs of State" (Jon Robin Baitz, Craig Wright, Patricia Wettig and Matthew Rhys) and "Northern Exposure" (Jon Robin Baitz, David Marshall Grant and Molly Newman).Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times