At times, ABC’s “Brothers & Sisters,” about a combative yet devoted clan of adult siblings, feels like the only show of its ilk on network television — and creator-executive producer Jon Robin Baitz is fine with that.
“I felt that in a time when family dramas have been eclipsed by procedurals and the real whiff of the supernatural, there was (still) a place for sex, life, money, blood, mourning, birth, laughter and the way people hold each other,” Baitz says. “It’s a very old Chekhovian idea, but done with a contemporary twist.”
It was a learning curve, though, for the acclaimed playwright (“The Substance of Fire”) to get used to the demands of primetime barn raising. Starting the series with the death of the Walkers’ patriarch — played by Tom Skerritt — posed tonal problems. Was it too dark? Too morbidly funny? The pilot was reshot, with Sally Field replacing Betty Buckley as the gang’s feisty mother, Nora Walker.
Meanwhile, executive producer Marti Noxon left, and former “Everwood” showrunner Greg Berlanti came onboard to help shepherd “Brothers” to fruition, achieving the mixture of warmth and humor that is now the show’s hallmark.
“There’s a comfortable tension between our two approaches,” says Baitz, who credits Berlanti with being a referee between Baitz and the network. “He’s very adept with the vernacular of television, and it’s been magnificently soothing. We collaborate well.”
As for the talented ensemble, Baitz is thrilled. Field’s matriarch “gives the show an anchor,” he says, while Calista Flockhart, as conservative professional Kitty, has “an extraordinarily mercurial ability to shift from comedy to something tragic in an instant.”
And Rachel Griffiths, who plays Sara? “She’s become the quietly brilliant representative of women who work and have families,” Baitz says.
He’s full of praise for the men, too, but as a gay man he feels a special kinship with Matthew Rhys’ witty, flawed lawyer Kevin.
“He’s so much me,” says Baitz, laughing. “I screw up relationships that seem perfect; I pretend I’m too smart for the room. I’m very proud of that character.”
Best episode: “The two-parter ‘Mistakes Were Made’ I’m particularly proud of because I tried to get to the heart of what happened to the nation on Sept. 11, and how it affected all of us and must continue to,” says Baitz.
Underappreciated character: “John Piper Ferguson, who plays Joe. … A wonderful actor who brilliantly essays the falling American man.”
Great line: “I’m fond of Kevin dismissing the notion of career, saying it’s the most overused idea in American life. I despise careerism. Everybody’s so interested in getting ahead, and nobody’s interested in being human.”