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On TV: Constant Crises

Much ado about everything, all the time, on a pair of ABC dramas

TV review, February 9, 2007

For years I've heard that TV is destroying the American attention span. But judging from a couple of recent additions to the drama category, ABC's Brothers & Sisters and What About Brian, we've got absolutely nothing to worry about. Anyone who manages to sit still through these things has got a higher boredom threshold than a deep-sea tortoise.

But there are different kinds of boredom; you can watch TV your whole life without ever managing to experience them all. The boredom of these shows isn't the deep, meditative boredom of C-SPAN or Court TV or an afternoon soap opera; it's prime-time boredom, the exasperating, cumulative, nerve-racking boredom that results from a panicky eagerness to be exciting at all costs. Both these shows are alleged to be about ordinary people and their mundane problems -- Brothers & Sisters is a family dealing with the aftermath of a father's death, and What About Brian is about a bunch of friends going through the usual crises involving marriage, or maybe commitment, or whatever the hell it is that rich, young corporate airheads purport to care about. But the pace of the storytelling is so frazzled and frantic you'd swear you were watching 24.

On What About Brian, the hero loses his company, his life's work, and all his money in between two commercial breaks. By the end of the episode, he's got a new job working for his estranged father; an episode later, he's involved in an office romance with some absurdly hot babe who keeps making cryptic references to her married boyfriend -- who turns out, an episode later, to be . . . his father. Over the first five or six episodes of Brothers & Sisters, the family business is in trouble, the dead father turns out to have been embezzling, his children discover he had a second family, and the embezzled funds lead to a bizarre land deal that turns out to be fantastically lucrative. Or at least I think it was lucrative -- I missed an episode and have been playing catch-up ever since, and the weekly recap of the previous episodes has grown more complicated than a physics exam.

This warp-speed storytelling turns every single scene into a peak moment -- which is the same as saying there are no peak moments, only a relentless monotony. At the end of the first episode of Brothers & Sisters, one of the sisters discovers her father's embezzlement at the exact instant that he has a heart attack and drowns in the backyard pool. Quite a coincidence, you might think -- but nobody on the show treats it as worthy of remark. Why should they? It's how everything happens in their lives. On What About Brian, a couple are fighting about whether he's flirting with another woman -- which inevitably leads to the discovery that their baby daughter is deaf. A few minutes later, Brian and his best friend take their girlfriends to a restaurant, where they run into the woman they were both in love with last season and . . . well, it's horribly awkward, but it's somehow not surprising to them because there's evidently only one restaurant in the entire Los Angeles basin where any of them ever go.

This same sense of fate infects even the would-be comic subplots. Calista Flockhart's character on Brothers & Sisters, a right-wing TV pundit, volunteers to take a night off to baby-sit for her sister's kids -- and wouldn't you know it, her producer immediately informs her that they've snagged an exclusive interview with a prominent senator the next day and that she must read 500 pages of background material that same night. Darn the luck! And it's the oddest thing, but something similar happens on another ABC show, Six Degrees (currently on hiatus, but streaming at the ABC Web site): A photographer, played by Campbell Scott, makes a big pitch to his ex-wife that he should take over custody of their son for the night. She agrees, and just then his agent phones: Vanity Fair needs him to shoot a cover that very evening! What are the odds?

Don't ask whether anybody on TV ever actually does any background reading before an interview -- or for that matter whether any U.S. senator has views on any subject that would require more than five seconds to bone up on. Don't ask whether Vanity Fair, or any slick magazine in the history of publishing, has ever done a cover shoot on an hour's notice. That would just reveal your pathetic, retrograde commitment to plausibility. The point is that in every situation the characters must run up against the most dramatic obstacle possible, no matter how far-fetched, in the shortest amount of time.

Lately -- in part to soothe my nerves after watching too much of these shows -- I've been watching a 1984 German TV series called Heimat on DVD. It's about everyday life in a German village over the course of the 20th century. What's most striking about it -- other than how it obviously cost less to make than those ABC shows spend on lunch -- is its feeling of expansiveness and leisure. It tells its story almost entirely by way of small, indelible moments -- picnics and late-night drives and arguments about politics and drunken evenings in taverns. Not big crises, most of them, and some of them have no obvious point at all; they could just be the private things anybody might remember looking back over a long life.

It's boring, I suppose -- at least in the traditional, slow-moving sense. You have to stick with it to see how these moments gradually add up to something larger, a sense of how history and the outside world are impinging on the village. The picnic is where the eccentric relative demonstrates a shortwave radio for the first time; a kid bicycling around the outskirts of town comes upon a construction crew and they turn out to be building the first autobahn. Then, when people around town suddenly start wearing swastika armbands without anybody else much noticing, you realize just how these small moments can snowball into an avalanche.

But it's exactly these small moments, the ones where nothing special happens except people living their lives, that the American shows leave out. They don't have the time, what with peak moments bursting all over the place like popcorn. Other than a few pretentious references to 9/11 in Brothers & Sisters, the action could be taking place anywhere and anytime, and the connections among the characters are the barest doodles. You can watch What About Brian for weeks without getting the slightest clue as to which of the characters are relatives, which are friends, and which are ex-lovers. And if you went by Brothers & Sisters, you'd think American family life consisted entirely of sitting down at big dinner tables and getting into shouting matches. If they slowed down for a moment they'd realize they had absolutely no reason to be hanging around together in the first place. The social world of both shows is essentially identical to that of Six Degrees, which actually is about a succession of random collisions of total strangers.

It might not be so excruciating if the shows ever went anywhere, but underneath all this frantic surface movement, the basic story in both hasn't advanced an inch. That's the dullest thing about them: their air of total inconsequence. Week after week, they churn out frantic melodrama that goes nowhere and adds up to nothing. Heimat, on the other hand, has time for both the largest historical movements and the smallest details of ordinary life -- because if you tell a story that means something, you can make room for everything that matters.