What price brotherhood? by Tess Makovesky

gravy trainRecently I drew the curtain on another long-standing favourite TV series, Brotherhood. I’d been watching it, on and off, for several months, downloading episodes from the Sky box sets service whenever I got the chance. And I enjoyed it so much that it feels like saying goodbye to an old friend. 

The series focussed on the lives of two Rhode Island Irish-American brothers, Michael and Thomas (Tommy) Caffee, one a vicious gangster, the other a successful local politician. The characters were loosely based on the real-life hood Whitey Bulger (played by Johnny Depp in the movie Black Mass) and his brother Billy, but moved from Massachusetts to Providence and with fictional family, characters and plot-lines added. However, the basic conflict of loyalty between an apparent ‘good guy’ politician and his violent, mob-based brother was explored at length and formed the backbone of the series.

And boy, was that loyalty stretched at times. The more obvious side, of course, was that having a gangster as a brother held back Tommy’s career. Rather less obvious was the hurt Michael felt at Tommy’s resentment of that fact. For him, family really was everything and it shouldn’t have mattered what he did with his life. And because they were so different, neither could really understand the other’s point of view.

I liked the series for a number of reasons, not least because it had one of my favourite actors, Jason Isaacs, playing the role of Michael Caffee. However, what began as a bit of a fan-girl thing quickly moved on, and I came to appreciate the authenticity and ‘real-ness’ of the writing. Most of the action was filmed on location in Providence itself (rarely the case with US dramas), which added a sense of grounding. And the characters were a terrific mixture of good and bad, to the point where they were sometimes interchangeable. Tommy Caffee wasn’t above doing a dodgy deal or three to further his political career, while gangster Michael had a strong ethical code which he imposed not only on his family but also on any other criminals who worked for him.

This level of complexity is also unusual in American drama, which tends to have a much stronger moral message of ‘good vs evil’ where good is perfect and evil has to be destroyed in order for the good to prevail. That extreme ‘black and white’ world view can feel alien to British audiences and Brotherhood was much more British in its humanity and its portrayal of real life as opposed to something out of a comic book.

And the shades of meaning in that simple, one-word title are pure brilliance. Brothers, the ‘hood, hoods… you name it, it’s in there.

Brotherhood was apparently first conceived as a movie and the producer, Blake Masters, was persuaded to turn it into a series by the TV executives. I’m glad he did, but in the end I’m not convinced there was quite enough material to fill the three seasons that were made. In the early episodes it felt fresh and you never knew quite what was going to happen next. By the end of series 3, it was starting to repeat itself. There were only so many times I could watch Michael being jittery and paranoid, or Tommy and his wife Eileen having yet another domestic falling-out. There has been criticism that it ended too soon, but for me it seemed to be losing its way and I’m not sure that dragging it on through another season (or more) would have worked.

That doesn’t mean I won’t miss it, though, from the slick mix of violence, sex, and American politics to the stellar performances from almost all the cast – but particularly Jason Isaacs, Jason Clarke as Tommy Caffee, Fionnula Flanagan as arch-matriarch Rose, and latterly Brian F O’Byrne as the family’s Irish cousin Colin. RIP Brotherhood, I’m glad I had the chance to see you when I did.

Find out more about TESS MAKOVESKY here.