ABC’s Brothers & Sisters has emerged as one of the hottest new series of the fall. But it wasn’t so long ago that the show seemed unlikely to see air at all.
The ensemble drama about a family business, starring Calista Flockhart (Ally McBeal), was marked as troubled ever since ABC went to the May upfronts without a finished pilot. Over the summer, much of the episode was re-shot with major thematic changes and two key characters recast, including the clan’s matriarch, now played by Oscar-winner Sally Field. But even though showrunner Marti Noxon (Buffy the Vampire Slayer) exited abruptly and was replaced by Greg Berlanti (Everwood) in August, Touchstone Television never shut down production.
In its first three airings, Brothers & Sisters has been the highest-rated rookie drama at 10 p.m. and the second-highest-rated freshman among adults 18-49. Not only has it held that demo each week, especially among upscale viewers, the show has attracted a growing male audience. And while it may not match the phenomenal ratings of its time-slot predecessor, Grey’s Anatomy, it still delivered better retention out of Desperate Housewives than Boston Legal did in the same slot two years ago (62% vs. 52% in 18-49).
In his first in-depth interview since the show’s premiere, Executive Producer Ken Olin (thirtysomething) talks to B&C’s Jim Benson about the troubles the show has endured, his frustration with its coverage in the press and why this serialized drama is working when others aren’t.
What went wrong with the pilot?
[ABC Entertainment President] Steve McPherson was deeply supportive of the show but was concerned about where the series would go. The pilot ended with the death of the father. Structurally, we weren’t saying what the show was going to be, and it didn’t reflect the humor and light we would bring to it. Tonally, no one wanted a show about mourning. I told him that was only a starting point and it would move in a more positive direction. Steve’s only concerns were how we were going to do that and if we could do it by fall. I told him we could.
Why was the part of the mother recast?
We had a brilliant actor [in Betty Buckley], but she was miscast as the mother of five children. We had to cast a woman who could be the center of a family of children.
Did you have Sally Field in mind then?
This was before we even knew Sally was available.
What led to the showrunner changes?
Jon [Robin Baitz, the creator/executive producer,] never ran a show. He wanted to bring a voice and an emotional context to it, but he needed someone to create a structure for exploring those themes. I am a director and producer and wanted the … right stylistic energy. With Marti, it wasn’t a good fit. There were just real differences in terms of the direction the show was going in. [Berlanti] came in and re-shot the original pilot. He is one of the most brilliant people, a superstar in terms of being a showrunner, and he has an extraordinary vision of what a show can be.
So what has the reaction been to your success?
There were a lot of people who really wrote us off [early on]. There was this weird skepticism in the press that we’re still experiencing. There is this predisposed negativity toward the show. I read the New York Times, and it is unreasonably critical of Calista. It seems like there is some grudging acknowledgement that we’re doing pretty good. We can’t do what Grey’s did [in the time period]—we’re not as high concept of a show. If the perception had been more positive at the outset, those numbers would be spun that way.
Why is this show’s serialized format working where others haven’t?
It is serialized, but in a different way. Each episode has some satisfactory emotional resolution within the context of the hour. It is not based on contrivance. In a 10 p.m. drama, people want adult themes, adult relationships and want to invest in things that affect them emotionally.
How have the network and Touchstone responded?
We’re doing as well or better than virtually every other new show. ABC and the studio are feeling really good. It took 12 or 13 episodes with thirtysomething to start telling some substantive stories. It takes a while to get there, but we’re going to start telling some great stories soon.