- The Washington Times - Friday, November 21, 2008

The holy grail of this year’s (blessedly concluded) presidential campaign was bipartisanship: Who more often defied his own party? Who could most ably bring America together to pursue the common good?

If the country has expected little of such pragmatism from Washington in recent years, even less so has it expected it from Hollywood - a cash cow for the Democratic Party and a bully pulpit for permissive social values.

However, the hit family drama “Brothers and Sisters,” which airs Sunday nights on ABC, has provided a rare example of ideological good will.

Calista Flockhart and Rob Lowe play Kitty Walker and Robert McCallister, a husband-and-wife Republican tandem: he a U.S. senator from California, she a conservative media star.

While the couple is politically out of step with Kitty’s titular family - a well-to-do, liberal-minded clan based in Pasadena, Calif., led by a perkily bohemian matriarch played by Sally Field - “Brothers and Sisters” is devoid of the kind of stereotypes that usually figure in Hollywood depictions of conservatives: racial bigotry, homophobia, greed, jingoism, religious extremism, overweening judgmentalism.

On paper, “Brothers and Sisters,” now in its third season, would seem to be an invitation to invidious, ideologically motivated caricature.

Miss Flockhart’s Kitty began the series having completed a stint as a conservative radio talk-show host - about as polarizing a job as one could imagine on a prime-time television show. Mr. Lowe’s McCallister has been the focus of a story arc that has the senator eyeing the White House and dealing with the vicissitudes and temptations of national politics.

Yet it’s all handled deftly and with a sensitivity that suggests that the show’s writers - not to mention its creator, openly gay playwright Jon Robin Baitz - have made a good-faith effort to understand, not just caricature, those whose politics they very likely do not share.

“We work really hard to be smart about it,” says Molly Newman, an executive producer of the show.

As the series was being developed, producers reached out to Mary Matalin, the Republican political consultant and publisher, for advice on how to credibly speak the conservative language.

It hasn’t hurt, either, that Mr. Lowe is a close friend of a real-life Republican politician - California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

There is, of course, pragmatism at work here: A national network drama would be foolish if it consciously alienated half of its potential audience.

There’s the matter, too, of setting: Robert McCallister is a suitably centrist senator from a liberal West Coast state. Were he a senator from, say, Oklahoma, he’d make a much fatter target for raging-liberal TV scripters.

However, “Brothers and Sisters” is no “West Wing” (of which Mr. Lowe is, incidentally, an alum); its forays into politics are narratively embedded within the human-scale context of a family.

Politics, for “Brothers and Sisters,” is an efficient means of ratcheting up emotional drama in a hyperpoliticized age. “It’s a great way to have conflict between our characters and within our family,” says Ms. Newman.

She adds that Mr. Baitz, the show’s creator, aimed to employ the Walkers as a metaphor for the country at large - “this big family,” as she puts it, “that fights with itself and disagrees on so many levels but manages to hang together and get things done.”

The Walkers hail from an academically fascinating - and, this year, electorally decisive - demographic that’s been called the “creative class” (urban theorist Richard Florida) and “bourgeois bohemians” (New York Times columnist David Brooks).

They’re comfortable with capitalism (in the Walkers’ case, the family business is a high-end food-and-wine company), patriotic and largely socially tolerant. One of the five Walker children is gay and had been a corporate lawyer; another is an Iraq war veteran who joined the military after the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks.

Ms. Newman readily admits that the show is “saddled,” to an extent, with an “incredibly rich, overprivileged white family.” With such a brood as its dramatic centerpiece, there’s only so much Looking Like America a show can do.

Given that unavoidable limitation, the fact remains that “Brothers and Sisters” does a pretty good job of at least sounding like America, in all of its aspirations and contradictions.

Conservatives might be heartened by the comparatively fair shake they get on a TV show set among bobos in Pasadena. Then again, such escapism might not be the appropriate remedy for a movement that finds itself in a real-life political wilderness.

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