The most recent episode of Brothers & Sisters (ABC, Sunday at 10 p.m. ET) found Kitty Walker fretting, all existential like, about the Santa Ana winds. Kitty—played by Calista Flockhart with an unrelenting huffiness that’s supposed to be cute—is nominally a conservative talk-show host. (The premise of the show is that she’s a dragon-breathing polemicist, but I haven’t heard her espouse anything more controversial than capitalism.) In the pilot, Kitty returned from New York to her parents’ home in California. By the end of that hour, her father had died, leaving behind a boozy wife, a brassy mistress, and a large brood of dysfunctional adult children. Kitty signed on to a new TV gig in L.A. and decided to move back into the nest, and so, on Sunday night, she was sitting awake in her bedroom, sulky about the weather.
Brothers & Sisters is an “upscale” drama—it’s slavering to be seen as a class act—and its creators were plainly proffering a store-brand version of Joan Didion’s “Los Angeles Notebook.” There, famously, Didion describes “a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio Passes, blowing up sandstorms out along Route 66, drying the hills and the nerves to the flash point. … To live with the Santa Ana is to accept, consciously or unconsciously, a deeply mechanistic view of human behavior.” Brothers & Sisters, a whole series fueled by such chic misery, definitely has the “mechanistic view” part down pat. The whining, too. It is the most popular and least tolerable of an ascendant breed of ABC show, a kind of adult-contemporary psychotherapy theater: self-help dramas prefabricated from perfumed gauze. The genre includes Six Degrees (Thursdays at 10 p.m. ET) and Men in Trees (Fridays at 9 p.m. ET), which are new this fall, and What About Brian (Mondays at 10 p.m. ET), which debuted in April and somehow stuck around. These shows share a view of the human mind closely modeled on Dr. Phil’s and an aesthetic sense shamelessly cribbed from a Pottery Barn floor display. When you watch them, you’re mostly watching people feel bad over beverages. Despite its pseudo-literary ambitions, the genre’s got a certain soap-operatic streak, and the soap’s an orange-lavender bath wash.
Men in Trees stars Anne Heche as Marin Frist, a relationship expert who goes to Alaska on book tour and—having discovered her fiance to be unfaithful—stays there. Marin’s local Last Frontier dive bar looks like a Greenwich Village restaurant, and the weekly plots call on the heroine to help people “get closure” and stuff. (“I have no idea what my son needs!” pleads a female cop. He just needs to be listened to, of course, preferably by a father figure.) I’m startled to find myself arguing that the show’s moments of artistic success rest on Heche’s fine lead performance: To see her try to hide under a blanket when her kinda-sorta love interest enters the room is to start suspecting that she studies Lucille Ball. Heche’s natural nuttiness lends some flavor to situations otherwise tapped for bland syrup.
The concept of Six Degrees is that there’s a gossamer web of destiny, or whatever, connecting all the characters. Erika Christensen, playing a nanny with a shady past, is the not-quite-hidden link between Hope Davis’ glamorous widow and Jay Hernandez’s glamorized public defender, for instance, and the subplots, all of them about the stress of life and love in Gotham, intertwine. The show is the TV equivalent of fate-based ensemble films like Magnolia, Crash, and the forthcoming Babel—”exercises in Serendipity 101,” as critic Tom Carson writes in the current GQ, “the art-film drivel of our time.” When a cafe waiter calls out a drink order—”Large latte, triple shot!”—you never know which one of these well-scrubbed young urbanites is going to claim it.
Six Degrees is working ridiculously hard to prove it has class and brains. Take the recent moment in which Steven Caseman (Campbell Scott), an art photographer who fears he’s lost his “eye,” discussed his concept for an ad campaign he’s shooting for Whitney (Bridget Moynahan), a powerful publicist. Flower petals on his mind, Steven quotes Ezra Pound’s “In a Station of the Metro,” every college sophomore’s favorite subject for a well-padded five-page paper. (I forget what mine was titled.) In that same episode, Whitney took Steven to John Varvatos or some such place where he might buy clothes other than his usual black T-shirts and blue work shirts. The show then indulged one of those changing-room montage sequences so frequently seen in teen movies of the Reagan era. Am I alone in sensing an incongruity between the show’s preening artiness and its everything-else?
Then we have What About Brian, which emerged last spring, carefully mussed, as the latest word in Gen-X relationships, facial hair, and dinner parties. Brian runs a video-game company with his best friend, Dave, who is married with kids. For a while, Dave and his wife were going to try an open marriage, but now it seems he’s just gonna cheat on her. Meanwhile, Brian’s other best friend, Adam, is getting married to Marjorie, on whom Brian still nourishes a passionate crush. (She might be “The One”!) Last night, I tried flipping back and forth between What About Brian and Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip. And though that episode of Studio 60 was the lamest yet—creator Aaron Sorkin, having ordered out for extra gravitas, boringly regurgitated nonideas about race relations, the Hollywood blacklist, and the history of sketch comedy—the experiment was still cruel and unusual. During Brian’s presentation of scenes from its previous episode, Marjorie, wearing a bridal veil in the cloying sunlight, gave our hero the old if-you-love-me-set-me-free routine, and it was all downhill from there, as usual, because Brian’s such a sap.
Despite such stiff competition, Brothers & Sisters is the nadir of the new style. Co-created by producer Ken Olin (who first broke through as a director of thirtysomething, that milestone in stylizing yuppie troubles), it is nauseating in its every detail. And I shouldn’t have expected anything less from a show concerned, as its Web site says, with a collection of “somewhat damaged adult siblings who embrace one another unconditionally while striving to reflect the perceived perfection of their role model parents.” Six Feet Under’s Rachel Griffiths is renting out her HBO aura in the part of Sarah, Kitty’s sister, a woman drooping under the weight of her mommy-angst. Her daughter is diabetic, and Sarah regards the prospect of giving her an insulin shot with total anxiety, like she’s been required to shoot a crabapple off the girl’s head. Brother Kevin (Matthew Rhys) is “the gay lawyer cautiously learning about love,” but the show is as timid and vague about Kevin’s sexuality as it is about Kitty’s politics. And imperious brother Tommy is rendered by Balthazar Getty, who’s kind of looking like Liev Schrieber lately.
Sally Field plays the mother, a bleeding-heart liberal forever at odds with Kitty because, of course, they’re so much alike. Further, she plays the mother—who, for the love of Ibsen, is named Nora—in the most unfortunate way possible, with a stuttering, scatter-eyed ditziness better suited to one of the chicks on Friends. (Even Field’s hairdo is a classic Aniston.) But the script still calls for Nora to be a matriarch, and last Sunday night, at the end of the show, she invited Kitty—a middle-aged woman still scared of the Santa Ana, remember—to come sleep in her bed. Mama quickly soothed the poor dear and nudged a slick resolution into place. “It’s only the wind,” she breathed. This was the show’s lone moment of honesty, the assurance its characters’ emotional lives are motivated by nothing more than hot air.