[NOTE: The following article will also appear as my regular television column for WILDsound.]
I was never much for nighttime soaps. Back in the day, I wasn't a fan of "Dynasty" or "Dallas"; despite watching "Beverly Hills 90210" for a couple of years, I never even saw one episode of "Melrose Place"; and I gave up on "Desperate Housewives" after two seasons. I just generally don't enjoy the over-the-top, far-from-real, always-something-going-on story lines, and I have trouble with over-acting (also known as Dylan McKay-Edie Britt Syndrome). So a glance at my TiVo Season Pass list will reveal two surprises: "Brothers & Sisters" (ABC, Sundays at 10:00 p.m. Eastern) and "Dirty Sexy Money" (ABC, Wednesdays at 10:00 p.m. Eastern).
I'm not entirely sure why I consider these shows to be different. I wholly admit that my decision to stay with these soaps may very well be arbitrary. Now that we've had a few episodes to see where each of their seasons are going, I figured it was a good time to take a closer look at them. And since I'm way more likely to drop a soap than, say, a sitcom (it was easy enough for me to say sayonara to "Desperate Housewives" and "Beverly Hills 90210," but I watched every episode of "Caroline in the City"), it's fair to ask if "Brothers & Sisters" and "Dirty Sexy Money" will stay on my Season Pass list.
Both shows follow the personal and business lives of families with five kids and a family-run business, and both, at one time or another, were run by Greg Berlanti. But the similarities mostly end there, since the tones of the two shows are so radically different.
The approach of "Brothers & Sisters" is a cerebral take on the soap formula. Created by playwright Jon Robin Baitz ("The Substance of Fire") and executive produced by, among others, Ken Olin of "thirtysomething," "Brothers & Sisters" is like an experiment to see what happens when serious writers and quality actors tackle soapy dramatic material. And the show made a splash in its premiere (literally and figuratively) when the family's patriarch, William, played by Tom Skerritt, died suddenly, collapsing into the swimming pool while sitting with his granddaughter.
"Brothers & Sisters" follows the trials and tribulations of the Southern California-based Walker clan and the family's business, Ojai Foods, in the wake of William's death, including the revelation that he had a second life with a long-term affair. The cast is a mix of well-known stars with respected resumes (like Sally Field, Calista Flockhart and Rachel Griffiths), theater actors (Ron Rifkin and Matthew Rhys, for example), and unknown performers with solid backgrounds (Dave Annable, Sarah Jane Morris and Emily VanCamp of "Everwood" are good examples). The cherry on the casting sundae is a pair of TV veterans (Rob Lowe of "The West Wing" and Patricia Wettig, who is Olin's wife and former "thirtysomething" cohort), bringing with them the gravitas of their former programs.
The story lines of "Brothers & Sisters" mainly consist of the kind of things you are used to seeing in a nighttime soap, with lots of drama involving the romantic relationships of the family members, the intrigue at the family business, and "big" issues like drug addiction and the loss of a child. To enter the world of the program thinking that it is too high-brow to take on more tabloidy turns would be a mistake. After all, we've had the discovery of a long-lost half sister who turns out not to really be a half sister after all, but who then enters into a romantic relationship with one of the guys she thought was her brother. That's the kind of thing you could see on a daytime soap, but it happened on "Brothers & Sisters."
So to enjoy the program, you kind of have to go along with the soapy story lines. And what do you get in return? Well, for one, the writing is very good. There is a lot of sharp humor, and there are genuinely affecting moments that go beyond melodrama. When youngest son Justin (Annable), a recovering junkie and veteran of the Iraq war, breaks down and admits to his girlfriend/former sister Rebecca (VanCamp) his inability to accept praise for saving one man's life because on the same day, he watched his good friend die a few yards away from him, it's a genuinely heart-tugging moment. As the scene unfolds, the soapiness of Rebecca and Justin going from siblings to lovers is not something you are even thinking about.
And a lot of the credit has to go to the performers. Annable is exceptional as the conflicted Justin, and VanCamp brings warmth and openness to the uncertain Rebecca. Field is her excellent self as the family matriarch, equally adept at reveling in campy dramatic moments (like telling her dead husband's long-time mistress about the existence of another lover with whom he had a son) as genuinely emotional ones (her breakdown after a garage sale in which she disposed of all of her husband's things featured a first-rate performance).
Flockhart plays Republican pundit-turned-political-staffer Kitty like a grown-up, settled down version of her Ally McBeal. Griffiths brings her usual intensity to oldest sister Sarah, who nearly ruined Ojai with a bad deal and is now forced to work under her brother Tommy (Balthazer Getty) and her father's former mistress (Wettig) at the company. And Rhys does a great job of keeping middle brother Kevin, a corporate lawyer, from descending into a gay stereotype.
In fact the willingness of "Brothers & Sisters" to matter-of-factly handle topics other shows are often afraid to go near is one of the things that sets it apart. Kevin's relationship with his husband Scotty (Luke Macfarlane) is treated the same as the romantic entanglements of his straight siblings. And Justin's Iraq war veteran is neither a recruiting poster nor a cautionary tale, but one of the more interesting and nuanced characters on nighttime television.
My only complaint about "Brothers & Sisters" is that it's sometimes too wide-eyed and naive for its own good. Lowe plays a Republican U.S. Senator from California (in and of itself odd, since California hasn't sent a Republican to the senate in 16 years) who is a liberal fantasy of the ideal Republican: He is young and good looking, pro-choice, has a great relationship with his gay brother, and has impeccable ethics and morals, so much so that he refuses to smear his opponent in the Republican presidential primary and later rejects an offer to be his running mate. It's such an unrealistic characterization that it takes me out of the show. And it's not the only time "Brothers & Sisters" descends into if-only-it-was-really-like-that territory.
But if you're going to eat candy, it might as well be good candy. So on that theory, "Brothers & Sisters" provides some old-fashioned dramatic entertainment, even if is soapier than a car wash. And it features some of the best acting and writing on TV. So I'm happy to leave it on my TiVo Season Pass.
The Walkers have little in common with the Darlings, the family at the center of "Dirty Sexy Money." While "Brothers & Sisters" tries to be the Merchant-Ivory of nighttime soaps, "Dirty Sexy Money" burst onto the scene last year as an over-the-top, near parody of the genre.
Like "Brothers & Sisters," "Dirty Sexy Money" boasts cast members that some might say are slumming on this job. Peter Krause, who starred in the high-end, dark HBO drama "Six Feet Under," is at the center of "Dirty Sexy Money" as Nick, a crusading attorney who accepts an offer to become the family attorney to the Darlings, a Kennedy-esque (but way trashier) New York City wealthy clan. Nick's father had served in the same role, until he was killed in a mysterious private plane crash in the debut episode. Nick, who was on the outs with his father at the time of his death, had always resented the Darlings for dominating his father's time. But he has a serious love-hate relationship with the family, realizing he is an odd part of their lives even as some of their actions appall him.
Donald Sutherland plays Tripp, the head of the Darling clan, and Jill Clayburgh is his unstable wife, Letitia. The two film veterans don't shy away from the soapy nature of their parts. Sutherland is quiet and mysterious, and, as the story lines demand, you're not quite sure when he is being played and when he is just pretending to be played to play others (more often this is the case). Clayburgh, meanwhile, dives into being the wealthy, quasi-insubstantial dutiful wife, looking after the needs of her grown kids.
And what a group of kids they are: all over the top, and all out of control. Brian (Glenn Fitzgerald) spent last year as the meanest, surliest minister ever to appear on television, but as of last season's finale, he left the church to work for the family business. Patrick (William Baldwin) is the state's attorney general and a candidate for the U.S. Senate. Despite having two kids with his wife Ellen (the always solid Bellamy Young), Patrick's heart really belongs to transvestite Carmelita (Candis Cayne). Karen, who was Nick's childhood sweetheart, has grown into a multiple-marrying socialite, who also, paradoxically, has an MBA from Columbia and is now having a spy-vs.-spy affair with the Darlings' arch enemy, mogul Simon Elder (Blair Underwood). And Jeremy is the baby of the family, the party boy romantic who is good-natured but completely allergic to responsibility. His twin sister and fellow partier, Juliet (Samaire Armstrong), has disappeared this season (producers deny it's because of Armstrong's personal problems).
The Darlings' battles and trials and tribulations are as soapy as those faced by the Walkers, but much grander. Consider: Letitia is arrested for killing Nick's father, Tripp insists on Nick defending Letitia (even though he is the son of the victim), and Jeremy is dating (on the sly) the barracuda prosecuting the case, Nola (Lucy Liu, as a more joyful and upbeat version of her Ling Woo from "Ally McBeal").
Last year, it seemed like everyone at "Dirty Sexy Money" was in on the joke. It was like they knew how silly soaps were, and they played it up for all it was worth, committing to the lunacy and making fun of it, all at the same time. There were over-arching mysteries more reminiscent of "Heroes" than a nighttime soap, and the intrigue was so convoluted, plausibility wasn't even a concern. But after months of inactivity (the show didn't return after the writer's strike, leaving nine months between the end of the program's abbreviated first season and the launch of its second campaign), "Dirty Sexy Money" seems to have lost its sense of humor.
This season has played like a more conventional soap, with plots that aren't so different than those found on "Brothers & Sisters." All the intricate strands relating to the mystery of who killed Nick's father have been tossed aside, replaced with the more simple charge that Letitia is responsible. The focus is on who is sleeping with whom, and who is out-maneuvering whom for control of the Darling empire. And Letitia's trial is straight out of "Dynasty" or "Dallas," completely devoid of both reality and sly in-on-the-joke excessiveness.
Sadly, "Dirty Sexy Money" now too often feels like it is just missing the mark. The show is set in New York but lacks any feel of the city, mostly because it is shot in Los Angeles. Nola, the assistant district attorney, lives in a luxury Manhattan apartment building, drives a luxury convertible (in New York), and has an office that most big-firm partners would envy, all horribly unrealistic for someone living on the salary of a city employee. (Her character violates my Perry Mason Rule, which says that television shows and movies don't have to be 100 percent accurate on legal issues, but they cannot present something that the average person would know is false from watching legal entertainment like "Perry Mason.")
Worse, the central story conflicts seem to go around in circles, until they've worn out their welcome. I'm so over the constant "you're choosing the Darlings over me" whines of Nick's wife Lisa (Zoe McLellan). It's the same argument over and over again. You just want to scream at her, "We've been over this 100 times. Either dump him or leave him alone!" And the family dynamics -- Karen's crush on Nick, Brian's hatred of Nick, Patrick's battle to get out from under Tripp's control -- are getting stale.
I don't mean to be too negative about "Dirty Sexy Money." The cast does a good job with the scripts they're given, and the writing can be very funny and clever at times. It's not that I think the show is bad at what it does, but rather that last season's approach seems superior to this year's plan. I liked the program better when it was trying to send up the soap genre, rather than just being another entry in the field. I liked it better when it was smarter than its competitors, not emulating them. But I'll stick around for a while longer, but I make no promises for the future.
In the end, the Walkers and the Darlings live lives that are nothing like ours, but we can tune in and, at the same time, feel better about ourselves that we don't have to deal with the messes they have to deal with and live vicariously through the glamor of the lives they lead. "Brothers & Sisters" and "Dirty Sexy Money" are both solid nighttime soaps, fully worth watching if you're looking for something in that genre. And "Brothers & Sisters" takes an interesting, more cerebral approach to its material. I just wish "Dirty Sexy Money" was as in on the joke as it was last year.