TV: Brotherhood (Season 1)

Brotherhood’s eleven-episode first season is a broody, slow-building drama about family ties and the collision of politics and crime. Helmed by Blake Masters and Henry Brommell, the series is modestly produced, but smartly written and well acted. It’s not quite as compulsively watchable as certain shows it resembles – notably The Sopranos and The Wire – but it’s still solid, intelligent stuff.

Set in Providence, Rhode Island, the series centers on two brothers who’ve gone in different directions in life. Tommy Caffee (Jason Clarke) is an up-and-coming local politician representing “the Hill,” struggling to support his family, protect his neighborhood, and do the right thing. His prospects are complicated by the return to town of his criminal brother Michael (Jason Isaacs), who forcibly inserts himself into the local Irish mafia run by Freddie Cork (Kevin Chapman). The brothers’ contentious relationship, fueled by bald-faced favoritism for Michael from their mother Rose (Fionnula Flanagan), squares them off in opposite corners of the ring as the series opens. But as it progresses their actions move them slowly together, revealing they both exist in a blurry gray area between their outward extremes. Politicians and criminals, the show suggests, aren’t that dissimilar — not an earth-shattering notion, but ever timely, and the message is well rendered here. Ultimately, Tommy and Michael have different means of getting things done, but they both have the best interests of the Hill in mind. Brotherhood takes an unflinching look at the ethical challenges and pitfalls of their differing methodologies, and reveals their family resemblance in the process.

Fleshing out the brothers’ world is a glimpse at how their ambitions impact the people closest to them. In Tommy’s case, the chief focus is on his wife Eileen (Annabeth Gish), whose meticulously maintained façade as the perfect mother and political wife conceals restlessness, depression, and addiction. Meanwhile, Michael’s best friend and partner-in-crime Pete (Stivi Paskoski), who’s managed to claw his way out of the gutter with the help of AA, gradually backslides under the renewed stress of his relationship with Michael. There’s also Declan Giggs (Ethan Embry), a police detective who grew up on the Hill. Giggs’ struggle to reconcile his childhood friendship with the Caffees with his duty as a cop puts him under increasing strain as Michael’s criminal activities escalate.

Like the other Brommell shows I’ve seen (Carnivale and Rubicon), Brotherhood takes its time to develop, and it’s kind of an acquired taste. Its starts with a small, focused world that looks pretty simple, then adds detail after detail until, at season’s end, you feel like you’re looking at the same canvas, but from a different perspective, and with a different effect. It lacks the flash and scope of some of its contemporaries, but there’s something to be said for its moody restraint, and the various story threads come together deftly in the season finale.

As the underdog “hero,” Clarke provides an understated, slippery central performance, while the more outwardly villainous Isaacs, whose character has a toxic effect on everyone he encounters, supplies more energy and explosiveness. The supporting performances are fine across the board; particularly good is Ethan Embry, whose inherent likeability as Giggs makes the wringer he’s put through all the more powerful.

Brotherhood probably won’t be a perfect fit for everybody, and it has its slow patches, but I suspect it will really connect with a certain kind of crime drama fan. I’ll definitely be checking out the second season.

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