Television Reviews

The End of the Line: Literary TV and Showtime's 'Brotherhood'

As popular wisdom would have it, the end of TV’s Golden Age of Drama may already be upon us.  But while its possible deathblow is up for debate (the end of Lost? The rise of Glee?), bloggers and critics of all stripes agree on its birth. It is no coincidence that the form-defining triumph of The Sopranos marked a retraction from the over-hyped New York that we sipped in a trendy coffee shop through the 90s, to offer in its wake a macabre kind of success story from across the bridge. Wall Street and high fashion gave way, for the most part, to McMansions and the hot-pink thongs of a Jersey strip club, while Manhattan became just a place to take your wife out to dinner or to hawk a movie script. HBO’s crown jewel ushered in an era of self-consciously literary television, capitalizing on the shifting, ambivalent viewer involvement that long-form narrative demands. David Simon of The Wire compares his magnum opus to Greek tragedy and Shakespeare; hip college professors are inclined to agree. “David Chase is Dostoevsky for television,” Blake Masters once said of The Sopranos’ creator. This was a high bar for Masters’ own show to live up to.  But though Brotherhood—a little-known Showtime series that fuses elements of mob drama with the best of urban dejection—ran for only three seasons from 2006-2008, it is an indispensable stop on the line from the metropolis to a smaller, post-industrial enclave just an Amtrak ride away.

Brotherhood takes place in Providence, Rhode Island, a city more like our own New Haven than perhaps any of the other TV-drama settings. Its neighborhood of focus is a fictional, but insistently particular, place called The Hill, a working-class Irish Catholic stronghold struggling with lay-offs, new immigrants and gentrification. In terms of literary comparison, the show conjures up nothing so epic as The Brothers Karamazov or King Lear: the larger-than-life gangsters of The Wire’s “Bodymore, Murdaland” are replaced by the day-to-day headaches of low-level ambition. In its unrelenting interrogation of what it means to be from somewhere, Brotherhood is more like Saul Bellow’s Chicago novels: to be from a place means to “stick to your guns”—to know it before and against signification.

Brotherhood’s creator is from New England, and it is evident in the way he treats both the show’s financially beleaguered city—which he likened in an interview to the world’s biggest high school—and his two main characters. Michael and Tommy Caffee are at the top of their game, on opposing teams: one is a local mob boss, and one is a rising star in state politics. They both do some bad things and wind up in good places, and they both do some good things that don’t lead to much. It’s a narrative constructed as all means, no end, and major events seem to happen at random. Even Michael’s return from years of exile to kick off the series is oddly humdrum—he simply shows up one night for Sunday dinner and pulls up a chair around his mother’s dining room table.

The characters in Brotherhood develop, but the plot refuses to arc: when mobster Michael kills an FBI agent in one of the show’s most brutal scenes, he does it because he’s pissed off. He is not the victim of grand social injustice that we are privy to while he is not, and we shake our heads in dismay rather than bristle with indignation. There’s no symmetrical interweaving of anti-heroes on either side of a blurred ethical or institutional line, like in The Wire’s finely wrought structure. This leads to a show that is grim but convincing, and which commands admiration for its refusal to mythologize the condition it brings to life.

It may be this hermetic quality that kept Brotherhood from catching on, in spite of its strong acting and a soundtrack that had me rewinding just to sit and soak it up (one episode closes with a suicide and the Martin Sexton lyrics, “I’m tired, scared and wide open…to the rest of my life”). And while Meadow Soprano lands at Columbia to begin her climb into Manhattan’s good graces, the Ivy League university of Providence is as far off the Caffee family radar as the tri-state glitz of Mad Men. We know this city’s problems link it with others like it, but we don’t quite know how. It is a testament to the nuance of Masters’ writing that the stakes we do experience keep us focused on what he shows us.

For better or worse, then, Brotherhood is a peephole into life as it is, not life as it aspires to be. It’s about a city whose troubles define it from inside, because the people there aren’t trying to get out. It’s neither galvanizing, nor glamorized, nor likely all that eye-opening to the viewers it would probably appeal to most. But the show does satisfy, showing that small places have big stories to tell.  And even if that’s the whole point, right there, getting that story right makes Brotherhood worth a look.

A native of Meriden newly transplanted to Boston, Jeanne-Marie Jackson is a doctoral candidate at Yale, working in Russian and Afrikaans fiction.