After creative fits and starts that included juggling producers, reshaping the pilot and recasting some roles, “Brothers & Sisters” tosses very talented actors into a flaccid family soap, chronicling the lives and loves of the Walker clan, who seek to prove that blood is thicker than politics. At the show’s core is the thrill of realizing that TV’s Gidget grew up to be the mother of Ally McBeal, but even with a “Desperate Housewives” lead-in, there’s initially precious little sizzle surrounding these philosophically divided siblings.
The reshooting, perhaps wisely, shifted the premiere’s big moment until the end, theoretically providing a sharper tug into the second installment. Yet by doing so, ABC has left behind a pilot that drifts through the early going, as well as one that’s a bit too pleased with itself for daring to incorporate the war against terrorism into its multiple plotlines.
New York radio host Kitty (Calista Flockhart) has returned to Los Angeles to audition for a TV gig, but despite the doting affection of her father (guest star Tom Skerritt), who presides over the family business, she receives a chilly reception from mom, played by Sally Field. Turns out Kitty, an avowed conservative, chatted up patriotism and duty to youngest brother Justin (Dave Annable), who’s still grappling with a traumatic tour of duty in Afghanistan.
With a boyfriend back East, Kitty is going to face an inevitable choice about relocating. Meanwhile, sister Sarah (“Six Feet Under’s” Rachel Griffiths) and brother Tommy (Balthazar Getty) work for dad, but there are suspicious undertones regarding the company’s finances, and mom’s brother Saul (Ron Rifkin, like Getty an “Alias” transplant) isn’t especially forthcoming. The fifth Walker kid is Kevin (Matthew Rhys), who’s gay, and everyone’s OK with that, proving we’ve come a long way since “Dynasty.”
Flockhart and Field manage to feud and fumble through loving, teary eyes, but beyond the money troubles and fleeting glimpse of a mystery woman (Patricia Wettig) linked to dad, there’s no real urgency in any of the subplots. Indeed, the show seems as if it desperately yearns to be a worthy companion to “Housewives” but lacks the requisite bite, despite political references meant to feel edgy that prove mostly banal. (Asked what you get your right-wing sister for her birthday, for example, Sarah quips, “Overturn Roe v. Wade.”)
The only reason not to dismiss the show out of hand hinges on its marquee cast and plum timeslot, which should generate some curiosity. On the downside, CBS will provide more formidable competition thanks to “Without a Trace,” giving viewers a viable option should the Walkers stumble.
In short, “Brothers & Sisters” will need to be considerably more compelling for ABC to cash in its “Desperate” dividend. Because if the show’s most distinguishing feature is simpleminded political banter with an ampersand, hey, there’s always “Hannity & Colmes.”