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‘Brotherhood’ an addictive new drama

Showtime's masterpiece isn't an Irish ‘Sopranos’, but equally fulfilling
/ Source: The Associated Press

In the first scene of Showtime's new dramatic series "Brotherhood," a brutal killing takes place at a Providence, R.I., construction site.

The victim is a local crime boss, and this rival's murder is happy news for mobster Michael Caffee. In the very next scene, Michael arrives home after seven years' exile to start making up for lost time with his own criminal pursuits.

This, in turn, is shocking news for Michael's younger brother, Tommy. He's a state representative and family man whose life is predicated on doing the right thing and projecting the right image. A brother like Michael, back as if from the dead, isn't part of his plan.

"C'mon, Tommy, everything's gonna be OK," Michael tries to reassure him. "Trust me. I'm not who I used to be."

It should come as no surprise that Michael and Tommy will have trouble coexisting in this cozy metropolis, not to mention within their tight Irish-Catholic family under the nose of their commanding mother, whose dinner table they now will be sharing every Sunday.

And yet, by golly, "Brotherhood" is loaded with surprises.

Like how good it is. "Masterpiece" isn't too strong a word to describe this series.

Nor is "addictive." A while back, Showtime furnished critics with all 11 hours and, once I began watching I binged on the full season in a couple of evenings.

You are invited to watch at a more measured pace. Weekly airings begin Sunday at 10 p.m. EDT with "Mark 8:36" (that is, "For what does it profit a man to gain the whole world and forfeit his life?" — each episode's title is a Bible verse). And as the series unfolds, you can be certain you won't be disappointed.

"Brotherhood" is a rich exploration of loyalty embattled by cross-purposes.

Tommy (Jason Clarke) is a public servant who, despite aspirations for higher office, is devoted to "The Hill," his working-class-Irish district where he knows every constituent by name.

Street-smart, hard-nosed yet idealistic, he's a politician who wants to be his own man.

"You've always put The Hill first, before the state, the party, the needs of the leadership," the Speaker of the House chides him.

Meanwhile, Michael (Jason Isaacs) is a chillingly magnetic thug known as "Three-Part Mike" (judge, jury, executioner). But within the limits of his psychopathic drive, he demonstrates allegiance to his brother.

"Look, I'll tell you anything you want to know," he says to Tommy. "But what you know, you can be forced to admit you know. And I don't want to jam you up."

"You almost make that sound selfless," Tommy scoffs.

These are men who chose divergent paths. But when Tommy tells Michael, "We're not the same in any way," you know better. So do they.

Splendidly written and beautifully shot on location in Providence, "Brotherhood" boasts an excellent cast that also includes Annabeth Gish as Tommy's wife and the mother of their three girls. She's lovely, supportive, yet living a secret life that could ruin both her and Tommy.

Fionnula Flanagan is Rose, a mother who for toughness is the equal of Livia Soprano _ though she has superior people skills (and dotes on Michael, her favorite son, shutting her eyes to his villainy).

Speaking of Livia Soprano, "Brotherhood" might suggest an Irish version of "The Sopranos." In fact, it's every bit as dramatically fulfilling.

But the contrasts between the two series are profound.

Tommy is a genuine hero, a good guy facing serious threats. Can he somehow reconcile his divided loyalties? Can he resolve his conflicted feelings for his brother? Can he pinpoint the necessary compromises to make without losing his soul?

These are much different issues than the central question dogging "Sopranos" gangster-hero Tony: How to escape the consequences of his awful actions while acknowledging his soul is already toast.

Another difference: While "The Sopranos" patronizes its characters for their rough edges (half the fun of the show is jeering at their lowbrow sensibilities), "Brotherhood" opts for a more respectful tone, even wistful affection.

"These are new days in Rhode Island," Tommy Caffee tells a gathering of citizens early on, and he seems to believe it. "The smoke-filled back room, the sweetheart deal, the insider handshake _ those are the old ways."

You can't help rooting for Tommy: He's championing the American Dream, and you ache for him to make a go of it. But even so, nearly all the men and women in this intertwined society _ even Michael _ are full-bodied characters, robust with their weaknesses as well as strengths. You find yourself rooting for them, too.

A nice outcome for "Brotherhood" would be a state of equilibrium somehow restored _ room enough and power enough for all. But don't bet on it. What happens instead is a fascinating drama that immerses you in a world of steadfast alliances (including brotherly love) that, all too often, clash. Sooner or later, something has to give.