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We Can't Believe You Haven't Seen...Brothers and Sisters

Brothers and Sisters
Image courtesy of salewskia (CC BY-SA 3.0 DEED)

Brothers and Sisters first aired in September 2006, boasting a total of 109 episodes over five seasons by its end date in May 2011. The narrative explores in large the familial dynamics following the loss of former household patriarch William Walker (Tom Skerritt). In his wake, Walker leaves a trail of deception. Naturally on the receiving end of his misdemeanours are his widow Nora Walker (Sally Field) and progeny – protagonists aforementioned, the eponymous brothers and sisters – who seek to disentangle the tragic web of lies he weaved, in the hope of gaining a real sense of a man they thought they knew, a father they trusted wholeheartedly and valued immeasurably. With the unprecedented loss of their father and an unmanaged business, first-born daughter Sarah (Rachel Griffiths) and son Tommy (Balthazar Getty) have new financial responsibilities to accommodate alongside their growing families. Kitty (Calista Flockhart) particularly struggles, having been closest to her father, whilst Kevin (Matthew Rhys) grapples with his father’s inability to fully accept him as a homosexual and baby Justin (Dave Annable) with PTSD and drug addiction.

A shameful and shocking past is unravelled – purposefully at times and other times inadvertently – upsetting the balance of a once conventional and supposedly nuclear family. Walker’s deception spans the entire duration of and stretches far beyond the years of his five adult children, each with their very own action-packed side plot. Sarah, for example, endures marital problems and in turn legal issues with custody as a full-time working mother, whilst Kitty navigates a turbulent career path; formerly a political commentator, later becoming communications director for U.S Senator Robert McCallister (Rob Lowe), her husband-to-be. One might expect that uncovering information so scandalous in nature serves to deteriorate family relations, but the Walker clan are truly indestructible. Whilst their relationships with one another naturally suffer to some degree – by extension informing their ability (or lack of) to form relationships outside of the family – they fundamentally acquire necessary life lessons from their father’s errors, his infidelity and financial fraud alike.


Brothers and Sisters is a profoundly moving tale, both poignant and uplifting at times (and excessively sentimental too). In amongst the scandal, beneath the melodrama of it all, Brothers and Sisters is laced with humour, often satirical in nature, most pronounced perhaps during dinner-table political disputes. The dialogue is tongue-in-cheek and facetious at times, tactfully transgressing boundaries of social and political acceptability, whilst at the same time shining a light upon issues pertinent to the time of writing and in turn those that remain relevant to the contemporary moment.


Most notable of the themes reflecting the socio-political backdrop of Los Angeles and Pasadena California in the early-to-mid 2000s are perhaps the Liberal Democrat/Republican tensions, with each character serving as a mouthpiece for one of the two political stances. Both are represented in equal measure and are essential to the storyline and the family dynamics that ultimately inform the plot. What is perhaps most outstanding about this particular series is the depiction of family values that ultimately preside over such political tensions, a family so fiercely and unfailingly loyal to one another despite their stark differences. This is perhaps most visible in the instance of Kevin and Kitty, the former a homosexual Democrat and the latter an uncompromising Republican inadvertently standing against gay marriage. In the face of many obstacles in adulthood – political or otherwise – the Walkers merely strengthen their pre-existing ties to one another. Kevin and Kitty, for instance, are able to put their differences aside. Kevin recognises Kitty’s potential in her field of industry and wishes to support her irrespective of her political leaning. He recognises that she does not resonate with all things Republican, but that she must stand with them as a matter of necessity in order to further her political career. Kitty publicly makes known her affection for her brother, even going as far as to hire him on the team in a later season. Not to mention, it is Kitty who marries Kevin and his husband. This dynamic in particular is beautiful to witness. Other issues central to the narrative include the Iraq War and in turn PTSD and addiction, as well as sexuality, health and the female body. These issues are inextricably tied to the above political questions, but at the same time, the recurring motif of family and relationships certainly comes through. The narrative is all-encompassing, the events depicted at times wildly disproportionate when considered alongside real-world happenings, but this is fundamentally what makes Brothers and Sisters so compelling. The narrative is overall well-paced, achieving a reasonable balance between the absurd and unlikely and the realism of everyday occurrences. The plotline is clearly well-developed and the narrative and its accompanying symbolism are deliberate and ingenious. Brothers and Sisters is utterly gripping. William Walker’s legacy - everything from fraud to hedonistic exploits  - never fails to shock me, not even the third time. Brothers and Sisters is certainly not a one-time series. I found myself mourning the loss of the show in the weeks following the final episode. How best to cope with this, you ask? Watch it again, naturally. 


What ultimately drew me in as an audience member is how the characters conduct themselves, how the actors seem to so effortlessly emanate a distinctly startling and compelling relatability. The relationship dynamics are all too familiar, not least for those of us with siblings. The characters are so authentic, so true to life it is hard to believe that they are, after all, mere fictional characters. I certainly don’t want to believe it. As an audience member, I feel a certain closeness, an emotional proximity to these characters. That resonance is really what makes a series stand out. Characterisation is immediately strong from the very first episode, but the development of these characters, too, is plain to see. As with any good series, the actors grow into their characters as the narrative unfolds. The actors effectively showcase all aspects of their varied and infinitely complex and multidimensional characters, their dispositions, likes and aversions, wildest dreams, motivations and internal conflicts. It really is hard to believe that they aren’t in fact real people. Kitty is perhaps distinguishable by virtue of an unruly ambition, a fierce attitude and her sheer frankness; Sarah her ability to seamlessly juggle motherhood, an all-consuming career and a series of romances; Tommy his domineering masculinity, innate protective instinct and fiery temper; Kevin for his quick-wittedness, dry sense of humour and articulacy and Justin for a youthful ignorance, tenderness and playfulness.  A diverse array of characters are depicted through the actors cast. There is a character with whom I can guarantee every unique individual will empathise. Brothers and Sisters is cathartic in nature, offering an apt opportunity to release pent-up emotion, a welcome distraction from the burden of ordinary living.


Narrative and characters aside, to neglect the cinematography would be to do Brothers and Sisters an injustice. Such is of a high quality, with visual and aural effects effectively supplementing the plotline. The use of split-screen is particularly effective, typically used to portray the siblings in their respective homes on the phone to one another to chat meaningless, superficial conversation—more often than not with another on the other line and at another’s expense. Much of the plot is relayed unconventionally, through the use of flashbacks. A lack of chronology effectively adds to the keen sense of anticipation and unknowing propelling the narrative forward. Flashbacks typically reveal William’s underhand behaviour and depict a number of childhood scenes from which his adult children begin to identify puzzle pieces that help them make sense of their present predicaments. The music in particular is a feature not to be underestimated. It perfectly corresponds to the tone of the narrative at any given time, enhancing or lowering the mood accordingly.  


I could go on, but I fear I will spoil the narrative. I don’t believe any words could do Brothers and Sisters the justice it so warrants. The emotional rollercoaster I have experienced – tears in some capacity for each of the 109 episodes – I can scarcely articulate. Brothers and Sisters has bypassed Generation Z in the media age into which we are so privileged – yet at the same time so unfortunate – to have been born. It is my absolute conviction that you are missing out. If there is one good thing to have come out of the age of digitalisation for the adolescents and young adults of today, it is Brothers and Sisters. Brothers and Sisters is a must-see.


Edited by Oisín McGilloway, Co-Film & TV Editor


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