It seems hard to believe in the 21st century, but when Brothers debuted in 1984, it was the first TV series to feature gay characters. It was also the first made-for-pay/cable program, something that is now so common. Philip Charles MacKenzie, who played the flamboyant editor Donald Maltby, was also the first recipient of the “best actor” Cable Ace Award (which is now defunct since the Emmys began allowing eligibility for cable and pay programs). Brothers, however, did not begin as a “preachy” show. The series focused on the bond among three brothers who grew up and still lived in South Philadelphia. It was a situation comedy, and a FUNNY sitcom, that just happened to have homosexuals among the characters.
The differences in the three men ran the gamut. Youngest brother Cliff leaves a bride at the altar on his wedding day, proclaiming he cannot go through with the wedding because he’s gay. Oldest brother Lou (hilariously played throughout the series by Brandon Maggart) is a construction worker, blue collar to the core, and not the brightest bulb in the package. He said he had to quit school in the seventh grade because he got drafted. Middle brother Joe is a retired football place kicker and the one with the tedious task of trying to keep the peace between older and younger siblings. When Cliff says he has to tell Lou the real reason he called off the wedding because “Lou’s my brother, blood is thick,” Joe hastily reminds him, “Lou is thicker. You want blood? Tell Lou.” Joe is divorced and overly protective of teenage daughter Penny (“All of the sudden we’re Mormons,” Penny complains when Joe sends her home to keep her from seeing Joe’s married friend in the restaurant with what Cliff refers to as “a bimbo”). Cliff’s best friend is Donald Maltby, proudly and flamboyantly gay, upset that “Hallmark doesn’t even make a card” for someone coming out of the closet. Rounding out the characters was Kelly Hall, a waitress at Joe’s restaurant The Point After.
The ensemble cast worked together splendidly with good scripts that kept the laughs coming while addressing serious issues (such as one first season episode where Cliff was beaten up in a park because he was gay, second season episodes where Donald had to confront his dying father who had disowned Donald when he came out of the closet and tell his former Air Force squadron members about his homosexuality, and a classic episode dealing with a former football friend of Joe’s who had AIDS). For the first two seasons, Brothers was the funniest program on television – cable OR network.
Brothers, however, had problems. There were continuity errors that piled up as the seasons progressed and the writers tried to develop characters without checking previous scripts. Most notable were the age problems. Lou was a Korean War veteran. (When teased by Donald for dancing with other men in Korea, Lou said, “That was different. We thought we was gonna die.”) However, the final episode in 1989 featured Lou celebrating his 51st birthday. That would have put his birthday in 1938, making him too young (12 when the Korean War began) to have been in the Army during the Korean War. Similarly, Donald, in the last season, celebrated both his 15 year college reunion and his 20th high school reunion. Like Lou, however, Donald was a veteran – an Air Force pilot in Vietnam. A five year span between high school and college would have allowed only one year for military service, and it’s impossible to learn to be a pilot – ESPECIALLY a fighter pilot – in the span of one year. (The military also demands more service out of their pilots because of the extent of the training.)
The worst problem, however, was the unceremonious departure of Robin Riker’s character Kelly in the middle of the fourth season. Kelly was an integral part of the show: female “voice of reason” for teenage Penny, continuous source of retorts to Lou’s less-than-intelligent comments, and friend to all. After Joe began dating Sam in the fourth season, Kelly vanished. The second of two flashback episodes had Riker listed as a “guest star” instead of a former series regular. It is inexcusable for a series to have a character to just disappear without any explanation (and, worse, to have that character come back for the first of the “flashback” episodes as if she had never been away!).
The fourth season was the turning point for Brothers, the time when the program “jumped the shark.” Mary Ann Pascal’s Sam as a replacement for Riker was a far inferior female lead character (and this move also left Joe without a waitress at his restaurant). It was also at this time that the show became less humorous and more “preachy.” Every character suffered in this switch. When the final season began the bad episodes far outweighed the good, with obvious and forced storylines such as Sam and Joe marrying and having a baby. By the time the 115th and final episode aired it was almost a relief to see the show go away instead of the conclusion being a celebration of a once-great program. (The final episode, where Lou consults a medium to talk to the ghost of his dead father to get advice on his birthday, may stand as one of the absolute WORST series finales of all-time.)
The show served as a springboard for Philip Charles MacKenzie to jump from actor to director. He directed several episodes of Brothers, and went on to direct a number of TV series including Frasier. His freewheeling performance as Donald Maltby stands as the highlight of Brothers. In spite of the flaws, especially in the later seasons when poor scripts were delivered by actors who seemed to be tired of both the script and the characters, Brothers still had enough memorable moments to rank as a classic program.