Apparently Rachel Griffiths has made it clear to her agent that she will now only appear in drama series that revolve around families reunited by the death of a patriarch, and the struggle to keep the inherited business afloat. Fact. From Six Feet Under to Brothers & Sisters wasn’t really that big a step for her or viewer-kind. Unfortunately I think it was a step backwards, as her new show rather suffers in comparison to her old show. Firstly, behind the themes explored by various individual plotlines, SFU constantly threw the larger theme of Mortality in the audience’s collective face. This gave the series a unique setting and structure, and also added a bittersweet element to even the most joyous of family celebrations… no matter how happy the occasion, the fact remained that they were left celebrating in a funeral home, surrounded by the paraphernalia, and messy personal wreckage, of Death. The “memento mori” were inescapable. It was a poetic and artistic choice on the part of the series creator, Alan Ball… something everyone watching could relate to, for better or worse. In B&S the business has something to do with oranges… which have yet to take on a deeper symbolic significance. It’s pretty much just a fruit packing and delivery company. Yawn.
Secondly, the Fisher family of SFU were really in the thick of it, keeping their funeral-home and home-home up and running. Personal dramas distracted them frequently, but they were never too far from a fight with the all-consuming corporation that sought to buy them out or run them into the ground… whichever came cheapest. Losing the business would mean losing the family’s only income, and also their cherished childhood haunt. Meanwhile, if the fruit packing business in B&S goes to the wall, then… well… not much would happen, as far as I can tell. Most of the characters are serious grownups with steady, middle-class careers to fall back on. Their mother would probably lose the mansion she lives in, but she’s started to feel lonely in that big old house anyway, so it may be a blessing in disguise. Yes, it was their childhood home, and it is reverse-snobbery on my part to suggest that it matters less, simply because it is a mansion with a swimming pool in the backyard… but in terms of pure narrative conflict, it’s harder to care about characters who have less to lose than others. Yes, there’s a scandalous skeleton in the company closet, but since this seems to involve pension fund fraud, it’s rather hard for me to comprehend, let alone invest in emotionally.
Another comparative flaw would be that SFU gave us the indelible image of Lauren Ambrose, flaming orange hair and alabaster skin, driving to school in a bright green vintage hearse with a chrome skull figurehead. So far I have seen three full episodes of B&S and there has been nothing nearly so fine to feast the eyes on. Did they ever make a toy of the lean, green death machine? I’d pay cash money for that. On the subject of merchandising, the SFU spin-off book was also a fascinating item to behold. It was housed in a sturdy plastic box, which served as the cover, so to read the book you had to pull the glued and bound bundle of paper out of its box, revealing the naked spine and vulnerable pages. Frankly, it’s genius. You can either see the plastic box as a coffin for the book, or perhaps as the constrictive “life” which it sheds to become something more profound than it’s mortal husk suggested. Perhaps I’m reading too much into it, but I was impressed that even a cash-in book could become symbolic, if a little intelligence and courage were applied to the design process.
Sadly intelligence and courage are becoming rarer and rarer qualities these days, both on TV and elsewhere. I will most likely keep watching Brothers & Sisters, if only because I still get a kick out of Calista Flockhart’s shtick… the pratfalls of a fawn… but at the back of my mind I’ll always be hoping that Griffiths might start barking like a dog, for old time’s sake…