Monday, January 15, 2007

"Nobody's doin nothin to nobody. Its all just happenin, see?"

Freamon: A life, Jimmy, you know what that is? It's the shit that happens while you're waiting for moments that never come.

The Wire has basically ruined all other tv for me. Oh, I watch and enjoy lots of other shows. Some of those shows I even love - Deadwood, say. I look forward to new episodes and Seasons of plenty of shows, from ER to Lost. But secretly, as I watch all of them, every single one, from Rome to the Gilmore Girls, I wish it was The Wire. Simply put, nothing else compares.
Most of the time, thats perfectly alright. It will make it even sweeter when I finally get my hands on the Season 4 boxset, and I take what pleasure I can from all these other shows I patronise with my sniffy viewing.

But a show like Showtime's Brotherhood makes itself so much harder to enjoy because it never lets me forget about The Wire. This is because it wants to be The Wire so badly. It actually plays like an inferior-to-both cross between The Wire and The Sopranos. In this at least, it can't really be faulted for ambition.

Showtime, like HBO and FX, is an American cable channel. Like HBO, it originally started out mainly showing films and sports events, before gradually beginning to produce and screen original television movies and finally television shows. But whereas HBO quickly had a couple of worldwide crossover hits in Sex & the City and The Sopranos, establishing its reputation for producing classy, quality comedy and drama, Showtime is still searching for that key show that will cement its standing. As it is, it is perceived as a HBO-wannabe, and its most popular series are a ragtag mix of pulp and high-pedigree comedy and drama that have not yet broken through in the way the major HBO shows have done. Even FX, a far more recent addition to the world of American subscription tv, has enjoyed considerable success and acclaim with the likes of The Shield, Rescue Me and Nip/Tuck. I doubt that anyone reading this (in the UK or Ireland) could name a single Showtime series, and this lack of a strong identity is precisely the channels problem, even in the US. Probably its most popular shows are The L-Word, Queer As Folk, Stargate SG-1, Sleeper Cell and Weeds.

Brotherhood is Showtime's big tilt at HBO-style acclaim. Set and filmed in Providence, Rhode Island, (where Family Guy is also set) and the story of the Irish-American Caffee clan, Brotherhood focuses most particularly on the two sons of the family, Michael and Tommy. Michael is a gangster with a hair-trigger temper and a sentimental side. As the series begins he is returning to Providence having disappeared seven years before "two steps ahead of a hit" as a local cop puts it. More or less his first act upon his return is to violently reclaim some of his criminal enterprises. And Michael, well played by Jason Isaacs, is serious about his violence. Tommy, on the other hand, is a rising local politician with a young family, bags of ambition and a conscientious desire to do well for his constituents. This is the terrain worked by Brotherhood - the contrasts and similarities between the oft-interconnected worlds of crime and politics. It also wants to deal with the death of the old working class and the changes working through American cities in the early years of the 21st century. If that sounds familiar to anyone whos ever watched The Wire, well there is the problem with Brotherhood. Does television have enough space for two shows to deal with such an area, especially when the first of them does it so well? Brotherhood also chooses to paint a portrait of a minor, historical city on the Eastern seaboard, one plagued by poverty and crime, just like The Wire.

The comparisons aren't fair on Showtime's series. The Wire is a genuine work of art, a piece of social commentary and political filmaking just as much as it is a funny, gripping and moving crime drama. It has the best ensemble cast on television today, is written by a crack team (including heavyweight crime novelists like George Pelecanos, Dennis Lehane and Richard Price) who give it the depth and epic scope of a great novel, and it has an array of complex and believable characters unlike anything else I've ever seen on television. Brotherhood really doesn't stand a chance in any comparision. To make matters worse, it also recalls The Sopranos, possibly the most critically acclaimed show in television history and one with a collection of pieces on its artistic and cultural importance published by the New York Times. Like The Sopranos, Brotherhood seeks to illuminate the inner life of a man and a family involved in violent organised crime, to demonstrate the mundane reality beneath the gaudy headlines. But whereas The Sopranos is confident and almost regally classy in its treatment of grubby subject-matter, Brotherhood never really rises above the level of pulp whenever it deals with the streetlife of Michael and his peers. There is a fanboy relish in the weekly scenes of violence, most of which involve Michael doing something horrendously excessive to somebody who has crossed him. In the first episode, he visits an old business which has been taken over by a smalltime mobster. Earlier, Michael has witnessed this mobster return to his badly-parked car and become involved in a dispute with a yuppie couple which ended with the mobster clubbing the man to the ground with a baseball bat and threatening to have the woman gang-raped before ripping her earring out. Which obviously inspires Michael, for he later drags the mobster into a carpark, repeatedly smashes his face into a car bonnet and then cuts off his ear. Which he sends to the yuppie girl with a pair of diamond earrings.

In later episodes he beats people with pool cues and his fists. He also shoots a few people while working multiple angles to improve his standing in Providence's criminal network. But he is always reminiscent of a James Cagney-esque figure from the Warner Brothers mob dramas of the 1940s - he is a blue collar criminal, without the ostentatious lifestyle enjoyed by Tony Soprano, for instance. He has some sort of twisted moral code, is fiercely loyal and protective where his family is concerned, and seems oddly emotionally vulnerable. He is offended and almost hurt by the changes he sees in his hometown, the death of a way of life he understands and its replacement by one he cannot. As played by Isaacs, who brings all of his experience of playing villains to bear on the violent and intimidatory scenes but is also skilled enough to reveal his character's depths, Michael is the best thing in Brotherhood. His brother Tommy (played by Jason Clarke) faces different issues. His struggles are mainly political and internecine - he makes deals and calculates odds incessantly, while at home, and unbeknownst to him, his wife Eileen (Annabeth Gish) cheats on him and grapples with alcoholism and drug addiction. Tommy is ambitious and eager to make some money from his position if he can, but he is conflicted by also wanting to serve the Irish-American area of Providence, the Hill, as best he can. The way the lives and worlds of the two brothers interact and entwine is the shows major subject. Michael is revealed to be just as much of a politician as his brother, Tommy as ruthless and calculating a gangster, in his way, as Michael.

But Brotherhood is not as angry as The Wire in its portrayal of a modern American city or as incisive and cutting in its depiction of a crippled, corrupt local government. Its essential trashiness - somehow underlined by the relentless seriousness and grimness of the plotting and characterisation - prevents it from ever seeming authentic in the way The Wire is. One Baltimore drug-dealer, when interviewed by a paper about the authenticity of David Simon's HBO show, claimed that the only detail it really got wrong was that it never showed the way the streets were deserted on Sunday nights while everyone stayed in to watch The Wire. Brotherhood seems too calculated in its characterisation and situations for any such authenticity to be possible. The very premise - though inspired by the real-life Bulger brothers from Boston - is too pulpy, and the moments of real human drama, many of them involving the brother's somewhat loathsome Mother, Rose, are outweighed by stock genre situations involving cops and mobsters. The writing is fine but never as memorable as that of The Wire or The Sopranos, both of which usually feature a few quotable lines in any given episode.

But the show does offer a vivid portrayal of its little corner of the world - the vanishing America of first generation Irish Immigrants. It is familiar from films like State of Grace and The Departed, a musty, decaying world of dark, half-empty bars, men with tricolour tattoos, alcoholism and unemployment, all overhung with the heavy odour of the corrupt Catholic church and its fading influence. Brotherhood positively bathes in this world, until you can almost smell those bars and the clapboard houses of the Hill. It is a classily put-together show, which helps in this evocation and building of such a distinctive environment. With directors like Phillip Noyce and Nick Gomez aboard, it is generally cinematic and visually stylish. The final episode of the first season seems to offer a deliberate echo of the Godfather, as it occurs entirely during the course of a Wedding with almost every surviving character we have encountered in attendance. It is all extremely skillfully marshalled, as people cheat, lie, confess and threaten in turn and most of the dangling plotlines are tied up. There is a shock, cliffhanger ending guaranteed to lure audiences back for Season 2.

But I'm not sure how much I care what happens to these characters, or whether I will actually return. Which is bad for Showtime, I suppose, in its effort to 'become' HBO. But then again, who needs another HBO, when the real one is still making stuff I have yet to see...The Wire Season 4 can't be that far away, can it?



Blogger daveysomethingfunny said...

Young Bernard made a rash offer earlier tonight. He asked me to pick a boxset that I'd like for my birthday, any boxset.

Can I really try and sting him for the Wire?

It's a lot of money, but apparently the best thing ever.

Rocky boxset is a lot cheaper though, less gift guilt.

12:19 am  
Blogger Ross said...

It's not "apparently" the best thing ever. It is.
There is no better TV series that I have ever seen.
I've yet to watch series 3, which makes me luckier than David because I'm going to start right now...

7:24 pm  

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