The pedestrian title of Brotherhood calls to mind a show trying to be tough, and failing miserably. The story of the Caffee brothers, one in city hall and one in organized crime, also definitely sounds like a premise set up for little else than the express purpose of maximizing your TV’s badass quotient. But this all ends up to the show’s advantage. Focusing on quiet moments, small relationships, and an unmannered depiction of the day to day problems of community, work and family, Brotherhood presents an unexpectedly intimate world for high-concept TV.
Make no mistake, there is sex and violence—it’s just not cavalier or slick. Their lives are realized enough that when one character blows away a guy in a bar for being an obstinate Yankee fan, it doesn’t feel many steps away from when another buys the strawberry swirl cake instead of plain strawberry for her bother-in-law’s birthday. As such, this comprehensive understanding makes Irish-American culture out to feel dirty but fabulous, like the effect on 60’s culture while watching the equally detailed Mad Men. Unfortunately, though, while Mad Men had that whole luxury of hindsight to help create a thesis under which it can umbrella its observations, 'twas not so for Brotherhood, and the show never tapped into a clear context or philosophy for its close reading. With nothing ambitious to pull off, and its momentum haphazard from the beginning, Showtime probably didn't think twice about pulling the plug.
In this third season the momentum is especially false, everyone suddenly saddled with something they didn’t expect. The first scene of the season reveals that Eileen (Annabeth Gish) is pregnant, turning her 180 degrees from her first season Julianne Moore-in-Magnolia-impression. Michael (Jason Isaacs) still has his brain injury from season 2, but by the end of the first episode here also has an irrational murder of an FBI agent on his hands. Michael’s cousin is saddled with a crush on his girlfriend that could get him killed and Michael’s mother develops a mysterious illness. These things rule the characters from the beginning on out, and some of these issues are resolved by season’s end, but some come off as completely dropped.
In another way, however, these afflictions were resolved in the end, in that they cause everyone to solidify the roles they’ve been heading toward throughout the series. Isaac's has been a brilliant, sexy Hoffman/DeNiro amalgam in physicality and attitude, but as the paranoia sets in from murder, the DeNiro side takes full reign. In similar terms, Eileen’s pregnancy causes her Madonna-persona to defeat her series-long Whore. Even when her husband Tommy (Jason Clarke) brings Eileen home a glider, where she can sit comfortably and milk the baby, she at first denounces the present, thinking she’ll just end up sitting there sad and alone, but by episode’s end she takes to the chair unsettlingly well. Tommy also guides Declan (Ethan Embry) into his role as clean cop, offering him an investigative job that he takes to make up for his past as bad cop. And finally, Freddie Cork, the heretofore revolting bully of the series, gets eased into being the voice of reason we never knew he always was.
Despite this, it does feel by the end that the show could have used one more season to really develop and wrap up what it needed to. The Caffee brothers have never been in that heavy contact with each other, and their conflicts are usually at least once or twice-removed. Yet their relationship is one of the most central elements of the show and for most of this season they were stuck giving each other the silent treatment. Not exactly the stuff that two-brother myth premises, and episodes with Shakespearean quotation titles should be made of. The episode titles for the first season were bible verses—so maybe they should’ve stuck with that angle (the Bible’s a lot less demanding in terms of theme, character and plot). But given the circumstances, and by the way they kept things open-but-not, it was commendable the way writers Masters and Brommell did at least grasp at something meaningful. Even if that meaning was inevitable and complete hopelessness… who knows. Maybe the future Mad Men, depicting these times in hindsight, will prove that Brotherhood was dead on.
DVD Bonus Features
No extra features, unless you count Ethan Embry’s massive (and real) chest tattoo in the Labor Day episode, which I do.
"Brotherhood: The Final Season" is on sale September 22, 2009 and is rated NR. Crime, Drama. Directed by Ed Bianchi, Henry Bromell, Nick Gomez. Written by Blake Masters, Henry Bromell, Dawn Prestwich. Starring Annabeth Gish, Jason Isaacs, Jason Clarke, Brian Scannell, Kevin Chapman, Ethan Embry.