Sunday, September 27, 2009

NYT review: TV show "Brothers" features "raw realism" by using actual disabled actor

Alessandra Stanley's review in The New York Times:

Adult brothers who squabble like children are a classic element of a family sitcom. Adult brothers who squabble like children, even though one is in a wheelchair, is a sitcom etched in family misfortune.

And that disconcerting mix of canned laughter and raw realism distinguishes “Brothers,” a new Fox comedy that begins on Friday. It’s not always funny, but it can be, at times, remarkably bold.

Michael Strahan (pictured), the former New York Giants football star, is cast as a retired N.F.L. star named Mike Trainor, who still locks horns with his brother, Chill, played by Daryl Mitchell (pictured), an actor known as Chill who was paralyzed in a car accident in 2001. Chill picks Mike up at the airport in Mike’s Bentley, which he modified to suit his disability.

“Adjustments?” Mike exclaims, as he stares in horror at the dashboard. “This used to be a car, now it looks like a cappuccino machine.” Laugh track.

Fox is known for cutting-edge comedies, most notably “The Simpsons” and “Arrested Development.” Several other series, “Malcolm in the Middle” and more recently “Family Guy” and “Glee,” have supporting characters in wheelchairs. But those seditious satires come in sophisticated wrapping — animation or single-camera filming and characters that breach the fourth wall to address the viewer. The soundtracks and cinematic style constantly remind viewers that they are not watching a typical sitcom. “Brothers” has a laugh track and the kind of one-two punch lines and plot points found on “The King of Queens” or “My Wife and Kids,” except that life-altering conditions are neither airbrushed nor central, they are just part of the domestic landscape.

Chill’s condition is a subject of jokes, except when it’s not, and the same is true of the father’s short-term memory loss, severe enough to suggest early-onset Alzheimer’s. The father, Coach (Carl Weathers), feels fit and fine, but he has a hard time remembering that he is forgetful.

The balance between humor and pathos is a hard one, and this show teeters on the edge and occasionally falls flat.

The family matriarch, Adele (C C H Pounder of “The Shield”) summons Mike home partly because she is concerned about her husband’s decline; he tends to repeat the same question a minute after posing it the first time. When Coach discovers another reason for his football prodigy’s return — Mike’s manager absconded with his money — he is indignant that he wasn’t informed earlier.

“Why didn’t you tell me that Mike was broke?” Coach asks his wife. She snaps back, “You would have forgotten in five seconds.”

In a different episode Adele fumes at her husband for forgetting her anniversary, a timeworn sitcom predicament that dates back to the days of “The Honeymooners” and “I Love Lucy.” Here it has a different twist, but strangely is left dangling, as if the writers forgot Coach’s mitigating memory problem. Chill is the most compelling character in the story — Mr. Mitchell’s jokes, and many are at his own expense, are quicker and sharper, and his delivery is less stagey than those of some of the other actors, who seem to be pacing themselves on a very slow metronome.

Mr. Strahan holds his own, however, and is quite appealing as a well-meaning jock who cannot keep up with his brother’s relentless mockery, especially about the gap in his smile. “You know what you should do with your two front teeth?” Chill says to Michael. “Introduce them.”

Adele is a classic sitcom matriarch who keeps her sons and husband in line with quelling stares and a scolding vibrato. Ms. Pounder does her best to avoid coming off as Tyler Perry’s Madea. Adele is bossy, but quite elegant and proud of her well-preserved looks. “Oh God, not a wrinkle,” she says, preening into a mirror. “Thank God I’m not a white woman.”

Adele maintains that she doesn’t really believe that Chill is paralyzed; a running joke has her stabbing his leg with a fork to see if he feels anything. But she has moments of maternal eloquence. When Mike says he let his brother win at basketball because he is in a chair, Adele passionately corrects his use of the preposition.

“He’s not in a chair,” she retorts. “Now when you are in something, it surrounds you and it controls you — you are in the ocean, you are in quicksand, you are in the Republican Party.” Adele adds, “Now that boy is on that chair, he uses that chair as a tool same way you use your skinny little legs. You don’t walk in them, you walk on them.”

That is a pretty good description of how “Brothers,” treats physical handicaps — as a fact of life, not a defining ordeal. The show’s humor, however, doesn’t live up to Fox comedy standards or its own good sense.