TV Review: 'Brotherhood' not a 'Sopranos' twin

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'Brotherhood'
When: 10 tonight, Showtime.
Starring: Jason Isaacs, Jason Clarke.    

It would be easy to call Showtime's "Brotherhood" an Irish-American "Sopranos," but that would sell both shows short.

"Brotherhood," premiering at 10 tonight, is set in the world of organized crime, but that's where any valid comparisons begin and end. Where "The Sopranos" has some laugh-out-loud comedic moments, "Brotherhood" is dark, brooding and forever serious. And that grows tedious after a few episodes.

Set and filmed in Providence, R.I., "Brotherhood" chronicles the relationship between Tommy (Jason Clarke) and Michael Caffee (Jason Isaacs), brothers who grew up in the same working-class, decaying Irish neighborhood. Each is crooked in his own way.

Michael returns to town after seven years away from home. He's a rage-a-holic who beats a man and then cuts off the guy's ear in a bid to reclaim his turf, but Michael also stops the beat-down of a civilian.

Tommy is a state representative who, when he's not decrying cronyism, is not above trading favors with mobsters or trying to deter a police detective (Ethan Embry) from investigating accusations of intimidation against Michael.

Michael's the prodigal son, their relationship is a little bit Jacob and Esau, but Tommy refuses to believe he's corruptible.

"You and I, we're not the same in any way," Tommy says to Michael.

The boys share a manipulative, domineering mother, Rose (Fionnula Flanagan), who has secrets of her own.

While Tommy is loyal to his wife, Eileen (Annabeth Gish), she has an ongoing affair with a pot-smoking high school friend, an opportunity to shed her dutiful political wife mask.

Michael reunites with buddy Pete McGonagle (Stivi Paskoski), a recovering alcoholic, and butts heads with crime boss Freddie Cork (Kevin Chapman). Much brooding ensues, punctuated by violence.

"Brotherhood" lacks the panache of "The Sopranos" and the thrills of "24." It's got all the hallmarks of a quality drama ? serialized story, layered characters with depth ? but it's also pretty dull and only occasionally as involving as it ought to be.

At a January press conference in Pasadena, Calif., series creator Blake Masters, who wrote tonight's premiere, deftly deflected comparisons to the HBO mafia show.

"Other than we all worship at the altar of David Chase three times daily and face New Jersey, we're really a very, very different tonal show than 'The Sopranos,' " he said, pointing out the political element of "Brotherhood" that "Sopranos" lacks. "Also, socioeconomically, 'The Sopranos' is a story about an upper-middle-class gangster who's a suburban dad, whose business just happens to be life and death. Ours is about lower-middle-class life in the Northeast, where the industrial economy died 30 years ago and these people are left behind."

Over the course of the 11-episode first season, Masters said, the writers learned what worked best of the two main characters.

"Tommy Caffee is the most fun when he's being bad, and Michael Caffee is the most interesting when, for inexplicable reasons, he's good, so that you never know what's right and what's wrong," Masters said. "It's a series that refuses to define black and white. ... Everything happens in shades of gray."

Indeed, murkiness defines the mood and tone of "Brotherhood" ? for better and for worse.


TV editor Rob Owen can be reached at rowen@post-gazette.com or 412-263-2582. Ask TV questions at www.post-gazette.com/tv under TV Q&A.


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