Brothers debuts at 8 p.m. EDT tonight on Fox.
Brothers is yet another sitcom where you’ll see all of the jokes coming, where you’ll be able to exactly predict everything from the story points to the tone of certain scenes, where nothing actually makes you laugh. The multi-camera sitcom form is so ingrained in us Americans’ very being – perhaps right down at the level of our DNA – that it’s become incredibly hard to surprise us with the form. Using unusual structures (How I Met Your Mother) can pull it off, as can coming up with a few really great characters (The Big Bang Theory). A go-for-broke performance can work as well (The New Adventures of Old Christine). For the most part, though, this is a form that feels tired because it is tired. TV wrung every last drop out of the traditional sitcom, yet because of the relative cheapness of the form and its success in syndication, there’s real money in finding a hit sitcom (even a middling cult hit like the aforementioned HIMYM managed to land a huge syndication deal), so the networks keep trying.
Despite all of the problems of the form, I love traditional sitcoms, and I hope they have a renaissance. The great sitcoms of the ‘70s and ‘80s are some of the greatest TV shows ever made, and the great, form-bending sitcoms of the ‘90s (like Seinfeld and Newsradio) are right up there too. If a show as good as Cheers or The Mary Tyler Moore Show or Barney Miller were on the air today, I would watch it first thing every week, and I’ll bet it would be a pretty big hit. As much as single-camera comedies like The Office or 30 Rock can get away with stuff traditional sitcoms cannot, the best traditional sitcoms feed off of the energy of their live audience to create an experience much like attending a night of live theatre and can try surprisingly serious storylines without seeming to be trying too hard.
But my wish for a traditional sitcom resurrection is not the only reason I was hopeful I’d buck the critical trend and really like Brothers. It comes from the great Don Reo, who created a number of shows that weren’t great but are better than their reputations (Blossom, for one) and then at least one unqualified success of a show, The John Larroquette Show, which was retooled heavily several times but managed to be a mostly good show for much of its run and a great show in its first season. Since then, Reo’s bounced around the TV landscape, working on everything from Action to Everybody Hates Chris. This fall, Fox has turned over a full hour to him with his creation Brothers and the shockingly not dead Til Death, which he’s been brought in to retool and reintroduce (for what seems like the 60th time for that show). In addition, I really like the cast here. CCH Pounder is a fantastic actress, Carl Weathers has a nicely self-deprecating spirit, Daryl “Chill” Mitchell is enjoyable, and Michael Strahan is a surprisingly game and goofy presence, as he proved last season on Chuck.
In the end, though, all of those good elements just add up to something that’s incredibly disappointing. This show should be so much better than it is. At every turn, the series introduces potentially interesting plot turns – like the idea that Michael (seriously, Strahan plays someone named Michael like he’s Tony Danza or something) had success in the NFL and was thus able to help out his family financially though now he’s all but broke. There’s a lot of potential tension here, but we never quite feel it, as it just gets buried under a current of good feeling. Similarly, the tension between Michael and “Chill” (this is also his character’s name) over how “Chill” is in a wheelchair and blames Michael for the incident that landed him there at some level never quite feels as serious and important as it should. You can see what Reo’s trying to do here. He doesn’t want just another attempted laugh riot sitcom that doesn’t land any of its jokes. He wants a potentially meaningful sitcom that doesn’t land any of its jokes.
If you’re looking for new, humorous jokes, you probably won’t find them here. I smiled once while watching the two episodes that air tonight and recognized a handful of other lines as well-constructed enough that they might make someone laugh. But for the most part, these are standard insult-based japes and broad sight gags. Lots of wacky jokes about the large gap in Strahan’s teeth are made. The older parents are still sexually active, and that freaks out their grown sons. And so on. Whenever the show strays into more emotionally interesting territory, it threatens to turn into something someone might actually enjoy, but then it’s quickly swallowed up by the broad, corny jokes. For what it’s worth, the second episode, which also airs tonight, is quite a bit better than the strained pilot, which suggests that given time, Reo might figure out what this show is and turn it into something worth watching.
There are two kinds of unfunny sitcoms – unfunny sitcoms that have nothing else to offer and unfunny sitcoms that have well-built character relationships that suggest that at some point in the future, they might offer up some laughs (this, for example, is how The Big Bang Theory started out). Brothers actually fits into that latter category, particularly in the relationship between the two brothers, which is an interesting take on both sibling rivalry and the bitterness of the son who was supposed to make good but never did and then the ne’er-do-well brother who actually did make good. Standard stuff? Sure. But when Pounder starts chewing out her sons for their anger at each other, the scene is surprisingly effective. So while this is not all there yet, there are signs here that this is going to eventually be a better show than some of this season’s other awful sitcoms, like Accidentally on Purpose.
But, let’s be honest, there’s another good reason to want this show to succeed. After a long history of successful sitcoms starring predominantly black casts stretching back to Sanford and Son and encompassing such genuinely fine shows as The Cosby Show and Roc, Brothers is the only sitcom on the five major networks with a predominantly black cast. Some have called this network racism, and while it may be that, I don’t know that it’s anything more than advertisers craving younger, richer audiences with more disposable income. (There’s a great chapter in Jeffrey Stepakoff’s memoir of working in the television industry, Billion Dollar Kiss, that talks at length about the market conditions that led to the end of both the predominantly black sitcom and the production companies that created them.)
One of the best reasons to watch TV is to step into the lives of people who may not cross paths with you every day. That requires diversity of some sort, and while ensemble dramas are getting much better about this sort of thing, sitcoms are getting worse and worse. Is that reason enough to hope that a kinda crappy sitcom succeeds? Probably not. But it’s reason enough to wonder why it came to this point in the first place.
Grades: “Pilot” – D; “House Rules/Anniversary” – C+
- Another reason for my faith: CCH Pounder could have been on pretty much any drama pilot she wanted, yet here she is. SOMETHING in this must have made her think it could be awesome at some point.
- Where’s our John Larroquette Show DVD release? We really only need season one anyway. C’mon, Shout Factory!