Neither a critical darling nor a ratings sensation, ABC's Brothers & Sisters (Sundays, 10 p.m.) has become the sleeper hit of the season. It regularly gets solid ratings and holds onto much of the audience from its popular lead-in, Desperate Housewives. It was picked up early on for a full season, and seems like a safe bet to get renewed for next year. Yet critics rarely talk about it, and it's not watercooler fodder like Ugly Betty or Heroes, two other big hits of the season. Maybe that's because it doesn't have an outlandish presence or a densely plotted serialized story. Instead, it's just a solid, well-crafted family drama, completely straightforward but more than often effective.
B&S is far from my favorite show; it's not one I would get up on my tiny little soapbox and demand everyone watch (those shows, if you care, are Friday Night Lights, 30 Rock and Veronica Mars). But it's something I tune in to every week, and that I bother recording even now that it's on against a show I like a lot more, Battlestar Galactica. When the 2006-2007 fall schedule was first announced, B&S was one of the shows I was most eagerly anticipating; although I love high-concept serials as much as the next guy (possibly more), I also love character-driven relationship dramas, something that the network TV landscape has been sorely lacking in recent years (the odious Grey's Anatomy aside). But word of behind-the-scenes turmoil, including two turnovers of showrunners and some recasting, made me wary of the end result. And the show started out a bit unevenly, if not as poorly as all the retooling would have suggested.
But it's improved over time into a rich, if sometimes a little predictable and unimaginative, drama, thanks mostly to the excellent cast (including the two last-minute replacements). Sally Field is very good as family matriarch Nora, and she's well-supported by all five actors playing her grown children, especially Matthew Rhys (like Field, a change from the original pilot) and Rachel Griffiths. And I know that people hate Calista Flockhart, but I was a huge fan of Ally McBeal in its first season, and I think she can be very appealing when playing to her strengths. Here, she does just that, embodying another neurotic single woman who nevertheless has a distinct existence separate from Ally. I don't find Flockhart's presence distracting; rather, she's a nice contrast to the more regal, composed Griffiths.
The plotting is a little less accomplished, although the actors and writers have sold these characters well enough as people that I am invested in whatever happens to them, however contrived it may be. I still can't get behind Patricia Wettig's Holly, the longtime mistress of the family's late patriarch, and everything she does seems like a forced way to keep her involved with the rest of the characters. But the recently added Emily VanCamp as illegitimate daughter Rebecca has brought some spark in her brief appearances, so maybe she'll justify Holly's presence. She was a regular on the acclaimed Everwood, the last series from current showrunner Greg Berlanti, which had its own passionate following (and which I've got somewhere in my Netflix queue).
I doubt I'll ever be blown away by a B&S episode, but I'm glad to have it around as a dependable comfort, and an antidote to having to keep a million different plot points straight in my head. It's perfect for Sunday nights, as a sort of palate cleanser to the TV week ahead.