No later than the severed ear in a jewelry box in the very first hour, it probably occurred to you that Brotherhood is Showtime’s stab at a Sopranos, only Irish. (Let’s hear it for the family values of the House of Atreus, the Renaissance Borgias, and the Brothers Karamazov.) The gaudy dysfunctions of the Rhode Island Caffees, like those of the New Jersey Sopranos, chug along at a smart-mouthed simmer between combustions of violence, preferably gratuitous.
Jason Clarke, best known as Constable Riggs in the Australian movie Rabbit-Proof Fence, plays the part of Abel, here known as Tommy Caffee, a state representative with flexible ethics from the Irish neighborhood called the Hill. Jason Isaacs, who has frightened small children as Lucius Malfoy in several Harry Potters, plays Cain, a.k.a. Michael Caffee, the gangster brother who comes back to Providence after the convenient death of an old enemy. Fionnula Flanagan (Waking Ned Devine) is their union-rep mother, a matriarch with blinkers. Annabeth Gish, about whom I have babbled affectionately before, is Tommy’s wife, Eileen, by day a politician’s perfect helpmate, by night addicted to motel sex and drugs. Ethan Embry is the neighborhood kid who grew up to be a cop and Kevin Chapman is the Nietzschean Über-thug who can be counted on to hurt people when Michael’s not. Blake Masters, who dreamed up these characters, has been ably abetted by executive producers Elizabeth Guber Stephen, Henry Bromell, and Phillip Noyce.
Unless we count Tommy’s reading aloud to his darling daughters, there is no joy in these slick eleven hours, and seldom any jokes. Brotherhood is rife instead with what John Gregory Dunne once described as shamrock Schadenfreude, the small mind and mean spirit that so much enjoy the secret vice and exposed vanity. But the producers have been watching The Wire as well as The Sopranos, so their Providence is a realm of brute equivalents: of racism and union-busting, bribery and extortion, highway boondoggles and snowplow contracts, outsourcing and soul-selling. Blood and money are the only two ways that Caffees know to keep score. And then, oh, Lord of Wow, there is Annabeth Gish—equally composed of intimacy and trespass, doomed and voracious, gorgeous and consumed, a shameful secret and a sight for soaring eyes.