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TELEVISION REVIEW

'Brothers & Sisters' is affected, not affecting

A show is going to have to work terribly hard to flop in the time slot after ratings royalty ``Desperate Housewives," but ``Brothers & Sisters" may be up to the job.

This new ABC concoction is a piece of fakery that goes through the motions of a ``dysfunctional family drama" and winds up as a dysfunctional ``dysfunctional family drama." It strains to show the strains of the wealthy Walker family of California, and my eyes strained to stay open.

The show, which premieres Sunday at 10 on Channel 5, went through a few much-publicized changes during its development (in: Sally Field, out: Betty Buckley), and critics suspected creative trouble. Well, it's time to believe the hype. Not a single note in the premiere of ``Brothers & Sisters" rings true, even with playwright Jon Robin Baitz as its creator and the usually natural Rachel Griffiths in the acting ensemble.

About the traumas and manipulations of the Walker clan, and particularly the tension between mom Nora (Field) and daughter Kitty (Calista Flockhart), the show wants to blend the full-on soap of a ``Falcon Crest" with the emotional honesty of a Zwick- Herskovitz drama such as ``Once and Again." The result: TV trash soured with affectations.

The most glaringly off-putting element in ``Brothers & Sisters" is the acting. The high-octane cast has been the show's selling point -- particularly the return of Flockhart and the addition of two-time Oscar winner Field, not to mention Griffiths, who embodied the searching soulfulness of ``Six Feet Under." But the ensemble feels forced, as if those playing the Walker siblings -- Flockhart, Griffiths, Balthazar Getty, Dave Annable, and Matthew Rhys -- are trying much too hard to appear cozily familiar with one another. As they hang around the parents' swimming pool, feigning comfort, they could just as easily be on a shoot for a vodka ad spread.

As Kitty, a conservative radio host, Flockhart tones down the tics and self-consciousness that were her trademarks on ``Ally McBeal." But she still indicates depth and distress, rather than letting them inhabit her. She is not at all convincing as a formidable Ann Coulter-like political thinker (``Oh that is so blue state," she exclaims), and if conservative viewers are hoping she'll give them a high-profile voice, they'll be disappointed. And Flockhart is even less convincing as Griffiths' s younger sister. Yes, younger.

Kitty has been estranged from her mother for three years, and Flockhart's reunion scenes with Field may be dramatic acting, or they may just be a competition over whose vehicle ``Brothers & Sisters" truly is, and who will be Emmy-nominated for best actress.

The reason for the mother-daughter rift has political underpinnings, since Kitty's views contradict Nora's. Remember, this isn't a nighttime soap; it is, as ABC puts it, about ``what it means to be a family in the 21st century." But when the cause of the battle is revealed, it's a feebly designed twist. Weaving political differences into a family drama is an ambitious idea, but it has to be done believably. Perhaps the inevitable clash between Kitty and gay brother Kevin (Rhys) will have more substance and subtlety; perhaps not.

The siblings are concerned about brother Justin, whose return from fighting in Afghanistan hasn't gone well. Annable was sweet as a lovelorn kid on ``Reunion," and he would blend in nicely on a romantic comedy. But as a war vet struggling with substance abuse, he's lightweight and miscast. He's more ``Laguna Beach" than ``China Beach." The other two brothers have yet to reveal their central issues.

The plots promise the same themes found on most family dramas. The siblings struggle in their love affairs, the family business is in some kind of financial danger, Dad (guest star Tom Skerritt) has a big secret. Maybe if Baitz and the executive producers, including Greg Berlanti from ``Everwood" and Ken Olin , focus more on telling their stories effectively, and less on constructing a masterpiece, ``Brothers & Sisters" will actually become the dishy soap opera it secretly wants to be.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at gilbert@globe.com.

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