‘Brothers & Sisters,’ love and politics

HAVING gone out of fashion with the Bartlett presidency on “The West Wing,” the issues drama is back, with less policy talk and more family therapy, on ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters.” Frankly I’m shocked (but gladdened) that this series made it through season one, after getting off to such an iffy start. Calista Flockhart as Ann Coulter? And then you want to bring Sally Field onstage as her type-A, bleeding-heart mother? And then you want to bring on “Six Feet Under” refugee Rachel Griffiths as her marriage-challenged, sex-starved sister?

But instead of sagging under the weight of its cast, “Brothers & Sisters” has, more often than not, proven to be a substantive companion to that silly-goose of a long-running hit, “Desperate Housewives,” conveying a more seamless approach to topical punditry than the more celebrated -- and since canceled -- “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip.”

Created by playwright Jon Robin Baitz and produced with Ken Olin (of “thirtysomething” fame) and “Everwood’s” Greg Berlanti, the show resurrects the upper-middle-class family as center stage for the highly emotional and highly informed.

The pilot of “Brothers & Sisters” was about Kitty Walker (Flockhart) leaving Manhattan for an L.A. job interview and then staying when the Walker paterfamilias (Tom Skerritt) drops dead of a heart attack.

His death revealed a shadow life with a mistress (and child). It’s a credit to the series that the first season ended Sunday night with much having shifted -- but by emotional, as much as physical, degrees. The father’s mistress (the excellent Patricia Wettig) has gone from evil gold-digger to semi-accepted partner in the family business; kid brother Justin (Dave Annable) deployed to Iraq; and Kitty’s now engaged to the centrist Republican Sen. Robert McCallister (Rob Lowe), having already quit her “Crossfire"-type show to work for his presidential bid.


In effect she took Jon Stewart’s advice to then-CNN yakkers Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson to “stop hurting America.” The banter between Kitty and Robert is a Hollywood meet-cute over and over, but it says something: Namely, how much more endearing would presidential contenders be if we saw them falling in love as opposed to stiffly attached to wives in classic Chanel?

The midseason pairing of Lowe with Flockhart has given the show sexual chemistry, even if the richest dialogue -- and where “Brothers & Sisters” is most immediate as an issues drama -- is in the tete-a-tete between Kitty and her brother Kevin (Matthew Rhys).

Kitty: “Why do all you gay people work out so early?”

Kevin: “All you gay people?” Beat. “Because after six all the treadmills in front of the mirror are gone.”

Together, they’re a show, like Carville and Matalin. Baitz and his producers keep conniving reasons to pair them in scenes, and each time you sit up and pay just a little more attention. She’s the driven politico building a better Republican, he’s the driven gay yuppie lawyer reluctant to help her clean up a potential scandal involving the Swift Boating of the senator’s Gulf War service.

“Brothers & Sisters,” in this way, is a throwback -- its duties as melodrama include a compulsion to comment on real-world politics, as Norman Lear transformed what a sitcom could talk about with “All in the Family.” Surprisingly for a show about a family whose wealth is in California farming, illegal immigration isn’t an issue. I take this to mean the producers are more interested in gay marriage and the Iraq war. Sunday night Kevin kissed a gay minister (Robert’s brother) and Justin deployed.

It’s the old-fashioned way of politicizing prime-time drama, characters doing things that suggest wider, more gradual social ruptures in the culture. The White House on “24" is dealing with doomsday terrorism scenarios, the cowboy approach making it a kind of Republican darling. Last week, during the Republican presidential debate on Fox News, Brit Hume posed a scenario in which three terrorist bombings had hit U.S. shopping centers, a fourth attack in the works, by way of asking whether the candidates would employ torture to subvert it.

“I’m looking for Jack Bauer .... ,” said Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.).

“Brothers & Sisters,” though, is “24’s” twin, liberal salve. That the wine-sipping Walkers probably sleep on sheets whose thread count is 400 or higher does not negate a more serious discussion of the war’s influence.

Justin represents those recruits from the monied classes (his near-drug overdose this season landed him in a Malibu rehab not unlike Promises) who volunteered for duty out of patriotism after the 9/11 attacks.

It’s a demographic backed up by statistics, even if TV lacks a show to reflect, as the Washington Post reported in 2005, “Pentagon demographic data [showing] that the military is leaning heavily for recruits on economically depressed, rural areas where youths’ needs for jobs may outweigh the risks of going to war.”

Places you don’t see in prime time, unless you count Dillon, Texas, on NBC’s “Friday Night Lights,” where Panthers quarterback Matt Saracen pronounces it “eye-rack” and sees the war as a distant conflict that has taken away his father.

But “Friday Night Lights” is about a small-town world where talking politics is a form of impoliteness. “Brothers & Sisters” is all about the argument, and the Walkers break down roughly like the country does -- to the left and the right about war, benumbed about Iraq, and now among those waiting for a loved one to come home.