British actor Jason Isaacs is so very, very good at playing very, very bad -- he's been Captain Hook in "Peter Pan" and Lucius Malfoy in the "Harry Potter" movies, for example -- that it's not all that surprising to find him playing a dangerous gangster in Showtime's new series "Brotherhood," premiering Sunday, July 9.
What he does with that role? Ah, now that's surprising.
Set in Providence, R.I.," "Brotherhood" charts the linked fortunes of two Irish-American brothers: Michael Caffee (Isaacs), a formidable crime figure newly returned to his hometown from a mysterious extended absence, and Tommy (Australian newcomer Jason Clarke), the younger sibling, a rising politician with charm to burn.
By the end of the premiere episode, however, it's already abundantly clear that Tommy is no more the clear-cut hero of the piece than Michael is its villain.
"It's all very well now and then to just enjoy the deliciousness of being evil in a movie, but to commit to playing a character over what, who knows, might turn out to be a number of years was interesting to me only if he was going to be a rounded person," Isaacs says.
"The pitch that sold it to me was that the series was about two brothers, one of whom, on the surface, was involved in a 'good' profession and the other involved in something not quite so good, and yet it's very hard for the audience to work out who they do and don't agree with."
While his character may break the law from time to time, Isaacs sees Michael as a man who follows his own rigid moral code after being transformed by whatever happened to him during his mysterious time away from Providence. Don't expect to get any answers on that score anytime soon, by the way.
"Michael is a very damaged man," Isaacs says. "The time he spent away, and the things that happened to him there, have both damaged and rebuilt him. He's had to reinvent himself from the ground up.
"Before he left, Michael had a lot of status. He was uncontrolled and wild, although always moral -- judge, jury and executioner, as they say about him early on. But his life had no focus. Then he went away and had what I think clearly are some pretty terrible and life-changing times."
The complex relationship between Michael and Tommy goes all the way back to their childhood, when Michael was forced to hit the streets and support the family after his father was kicked out, an inconvenient fact his iron-willed mother (Fionnula Flanagan) conveniently forgets most of the time.
"In Michael's head, he raised Tommy, and he raised him to be the opposite of what [Michael] had had to do," Isaacs explains. "Michael has been putting money into the family for a long time now. His mother is a proud working woman who may not remember it the same way, but Michael remembers, and he knows that he was the man of the house from far too young an age. He is determined that Tommy never will fall into the same traps Michael fell into.
"In some way Tommy hates his brother for complicating his life just by living in the same town again, but Tommy also knows he would never have had the opportunities he had without Michael. At least, that's my version of events."
Tommy has on such blinders when it comes to anything apart from his political career that he doesn't even notice that his beautiful but bored wife, Eileen (Annabeth Gish), is turning to drugs and casual sex with other men just to put some feeling into her life. Michael, on the other hand, isn't averse to taking aside a young niece for a stern lecture if he sees her heading for trouble.
"But nothing is too easily put into a box," Isaac cautions. "You might say, 'Michael is very devoted to his family,' yet his mother loses her job and he's concerned with who's dealing in the neighborhood. None of these characters is black or white, or even especially consistent, although they may try to be."
Executive producer and head writer Blake Masters knows that some critics, at least early on, are going to tag "Brotherhood" as a corned-beef-and-cabbage variation on "The Sopranos," although he insists the shows are actually quite different in terms of tone and subject matter.
"There's a more elegiac quality to what we are doing, and there's also the whole political element," Masters points out. "We are just as much 'All the King's Men' as we are 'The Godfather.'
"Also, socioeconomically, 'The Sopranos' is a story about an upper-middle-class gangster who is a suburban dad [whose] business just happens to be life and death. Our show is about the reality of lower-middle-class life in the Northeast, where the industrial economy died 30 years ago and these people are left behind."
Isaacs says he thinks viewers will take to "Brotherhood" for the same reason he himself watches any TV show: multifaceted characters involved in compelling stories.
"What I hope for when I watch television -- and I am a huge fan of good television -- is that it is something that will engage me enough that I will want to talk about it with somebody else," Isaacs says. "What I think you'll get out of 'Brotherhood,' if you're lucky, is a really good argument, with people taking different sides with different characters at different times -- and they'll swap around.
"There's also the sheer fun of being transported into a different world. The whole point of telling stories is so people relate it to their own lives. You can find yourself, at one point or another, in all of these characters, in all their different dynamics."