TV Review: FOX’s ‘Brothers’

09.24.09 8 years ago 3 Comments

Michael Lavine/FOX

Love jokes about paraplegia?

FOX has a show for you!

Easily amused by grown men with a clear need for orthodontia? 

FOX has a show for you!

Captivated by the hilarious idea of returning home to discover your father has worsening dementia? 

FOX has a show for you!

Premiering on Friday, Sept. 25 with a full laughless hour, “Brothers” comes from the same FOX live-action comedy tradition that gave the world “Do Not Disturb” and “Happy Hour” (for seven combined airings). Offering hope for “Brothers” is the fact that it’s been paired with “‘Til Death,” which is somehow moving its its fourth mirthless season this fall. 

That may offer less hope for viewers and for fans of “Dollhouse,” which gets this sitcom block as its inexplicable Friday lead-in.

More kind words for “Brothers” after the break…

“Brothers” is built around the premise that NFL sackmaster Michael Strahan is such a compelling personality that the world has been waiting to see him in a traditional multi-camera sitcom.

Strahan plays Mike Trainer, a former NFL sackmaster. It’s a stretch, but he pulls it off. Mike has been lured home by his mother Adele (CCH Pounder), who feigns concern that his father Coach (Carl Weathers) has had a stroke and is having mental difficulties. Adele has a number of ulterior motives, including forcing Mike to reconcile with his wheelchair-bound brother Chill (Daryl “Chill” Mitchell, who must have had it in his contract that if Strahan didn’t have to learn a new name, neither did he). Having the family together under one roof seems like a dream for Adele, but it might be a nightmare for everyone else.

NFL fans have long known that in addition to his fierce on-field demeanor and his easy wit off-the-field, Michael Strahan has a gap between his two front teeth. It’s a little distinctive.

TV fans know that Chill Mitchell has been paralyzed from the waist down since 2001, which hasn’t prevented him from being both compelling and funny in a regular role on “Ed” and in a number of guest appearances.

There is a tradition in comedy, one that I would never attempt to stand in the way of, of acknowledging the elephant in the room and I guess that “Brothers” creator Don Reo figured that Strahan’s gap and Mitchell’s disability were the elephants in the room.

I’d still argue, though, that’s one thing to acknowledge the elephant in the room. It’s another thing to make your TV show into Dumbo.

How would I define the difference? 

In the pilot for “Brothers,” 20 punchlines revolve around either Mitchell’s differently-abled status, or Strahan’s long-past-relevant need for braces.

To break it down, that’s 14 Mitchell jokes and only six Strahan jokes, which almost seems restrained if you add in the seven jokes about the possibility that Weathers’ character has had a major cerebral event. 

[Note: All statistics are provisional and unofficial. Sometimes I chose to count follow-up jokes as individual jokes within my count, while other times I didn’t. It was a judgement call based on whether the follow-up was a new variation on the cripple/gappy/demented formula or a continuation of the previous joke. In addition, I didn’t count sight-gags in which the whole point of the joke is that because one of them is standing and the other is in a wheelchair, there’s a large hight disparity between Strahan and Mitchell. An alternative methodology would have been to count the number of laughs from the studio audience/laff-trak for those three topics, but that wouldn’t work, since sometimes the disability punchlines came so fast that the very eager audience was too busy guffawing at one that they missed the next.]

And it’s not even like there are a vast variety of jokes within these three  subcategories. “Brothers” is tremendously lazy and uninspired with how it picks on these three inevitable topics, which is far worse than the fixation itself. If you have to make more than a dozen jokes about the guy with no feeling in his leg, how many times do you really think you’re going to make people laugh by suggesting his mother likes to stab him in the thigh with a fork? I know. Take a few deep breaths and your side will stop splitting.

Throw in four penis jokes, focusing alternatingly on shaving and size, and there isn’t really room for anything else in the pilot. Well, at least it doesn’t leave any room for comedy. “Brothers” also views itself as the sort of sitcom that’s capable of taking long breaks from gags for speeches about family unity, loving your siblings and taking responsibility for your own life. Reo is smart enough that he gives almost all of the dramatic lifting to Pounder who, with her four Emmy nominations, is just way, way, way too good for this material. She’s the reason why “Brothers” plays far better as a drama than as a comedy. At least if your drama is laugh-free, it’s hard to criticize you.

Because I’m an honest person and I have to admit that the second episode of “Brothers” is no funnier than the pilot, but it’s a good deal less excruciating to watch. Perhaps having finally shot the elephant [in my pajamas… How he got in my pajamas, I’m never know] in the corner, the pilot makes no mention of the gap between Strahan’s teeth. It’s still there, but it’s no longer the impediment and topic of conversation it needed to be in the pilot. There’s also no mention of Coach’s dementia. In fact, it’s such a non-issue that Adele gets angry at her husband for that beloved sitcom reason, he forgot their anniversary. I felt like yelling at her, “He’s got brain damage, woman! Cut him some slack.” But since he exhibits no other signs of impairment, it’s possible that the writers decided to forget about his forgetfulness. 

In fact, if Mitchell could only stand up and do a jig, the second episode of “Brothers” would feel like a largely different and differently unfunny sitcom. Instead, Mitchell and his wheelchair have to bear the brunt of the mirth for the episode. 

Again, episode two of “Brothers” isn’t funny, but it isn’t offensively unfunny, which allows for the possibility that ABC’s “Hank” might find a way to claim the crown of the season’s worst new show after its own second episode. 

That still won’t take away from how disheartening “Brothers” is. The NAACP put out a statement on Wednesday raving, “”We… salute the network and the series producers for making a groundbreaking comedy that is fresh and inventive, while still accurately portraying real-life situations facing many American families today.”

I beg to differ with nearly every word of the review, which goes on to urge all NAACP members to watch the show, but I understand why the statement was necessary. If you ignore “The Cleveland Show,” with its team of white producers and its white-guy-in-black-voice leading man, “Brothers” is network TV’s only series focusing on an African-American family. And while there are a number of shows with African-American leads or co-leads, they’re almost all dramas and they’re all ensembles. The closest you’re going to find, really, is Tyra Banks on “America’s Next Top Model,” which only exposes or serves as a reminder of The CW’s decision to ditch “Girlfriends” and “Everybody Hates Chris.”

If network television had five African-American-centric shows, the NAACP wouldn’t need to put out a press release urging members to watch each one. Heck, if there were two, the NAACP probably wouldn’t choose to take sides. But when the network television landscape offers exactly one show that focuses on African-Americans — don’t bother seeking out the shows that focus on Asians or Latinos — the civil rights organization has to show support.

And, say this for “Brothers,” it isn’t regressive. The only race-based humor is very carefully directed to really be about Caucasian people — For example, Pounder’s character celebrates that her skin is still wrinkle-free, expressing gratitude that she isn’t a white woman — so that the stereotypes are deflected away from the family.

It’s just bad.

“Brothers” has its hour-long premiere on FOX on Friday, Sept. 25 starting at 8 p.m.

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