Largely overshadowed by having been hatched the same time as “Dexter,” “Brotherhood” remains that other Showtime drama — a gritty, competently executed, occasionally gripping crime series that never quite rises to the lofty pay TV standards established by “The Sopranos” and “The Wire.” Season three finds the two Caffee brothers estranged, but awkwardly connected to the same unsavory, greed-fueled mix of organized crime and politics. Strong casting elevates the material, but the show experiences too many ho-hum stretches to qualify as must-see (or even must-DVR) TV for all but a loyal few.
At the center remain Irish-American brothers Michael (Jason Isaacs), a ruthless if oddly principled criminal whose control of a local gang is due to be challenged in season three; and Tommy (Jason Clarke), a Providence politico whose forced servitude to the more powerful Speaker Donatello (Matt Servitto) begins prompting him to look for a way to break out — not just of politics, but perhaps to flee town. That sounds fine to Tommy’s wife Eileen (Annabeth Gish), who struggles to make a difference in a social-services job and repair her strained marriage. The brothers’ steely mom Rose (Fionnula Flanagan), meanwhile, is becoming ill — and put through the ringer by a callous, uncaring health system.
As has become almost obligatory for such programs, “Brotherhood” features a daunting array of faces to remember and a dense, interlocking web of relationships. The problem is the show isn’t nearly as compelling whenever the narrative deviates from Michael — who Isaacs plays like a simmering powder keg, never certain when his short fuse is going to be lit — or Tommy and Eileen. Her scenes, moreover, have been significantly downgraded from the character’s initial status as an unhappy, cheating, pot-smoking suburban mom.
Dark, grainy and somber, the series does offer a window into a blue-collar world that bears a passing resemblance to “The Wire” except for the monochromatic color scheme — one of shakedowns, extortion, shady construction projects and unscrupulous politicians. “I’m a hack,” Tommy mutters ruefully after an errand for Donatello, bolstering his yearnings to escape.
Mostly lacking, though, in season three’s first two episodes is much in the way of balancing humor, or the kind of vivid supporting characters we have come to expect from one of TV’s most well-trod genres. “Brotherhood” certainly has its moments and does an especially artful job conveying violence in a brutal but not gratuitous way — one that’s often more harrowing precisely because of its restraint. Ultimately, though, once you get past the brothers, the whole thing’s a bit too grim.