NEW YORK — Fans of “Brotherhood” last season might consider Michael Caffee a thug, a brute, a force of evil.
Jason Isaacs, who plays him, has a different take.
“Michael’s always been a good guy,” Isaacs said. “He has an absolute sense of what right and wrong is, and in his head, he’s doing the right thing, all the time. And when occasionally he does the wrong thing, he carries the weight of it in his conscience.”
Or maybe not. Reasonable people can disagree about such things, especially as they unfold in this Showtime drama, which has a splendid way of keeping moral issues in flux and its characters off-kilter.
Granted, “Brotherhood” began with what seemed like high-concept symmetry. Focused on a working-class Irish-American family in Providence, R.I., it had “good” brother Tommy Caffee (played by Jason Clarke), an ambitious but idealistic state legislator. It also had the “bad” one, Michael, a small-time mobster whose return to town after a seven-year disappearance spelled trouble — especially for Tommy as he scrambled to preserve his clean-cut image as a public servant and family man.
However formulaic that may sound, “Brotherhood” was anything but. And back now for its second season (at 10 p.m. Sundays), this Peabody Award-winning series has given the kaleidoscope another twist.
Tommy’s family life and public spiritedness are both in steady decline.
As for Michael? Well, on last season’s finale he got what many viewers might agree was overdue: a savage, nearly fatal beating.
“Last year, Michael was an unstoppable force and utterly fearless,” said Isaacs. “Now, with his head smashed to pieces like a watermelon, there were three choices for where to go next: one, kill him off; two, ignore the injuries and let him pop out of the shower this season like Bobby Ewing; or three, deal with what would really happen after that kind of beating — brain damage.”
Having come out of his coma and gone through rehab, Michael emerges not just morally repellent, but also — wow! — sympathetic as he struggles to pick up where he left off (and figure out who attacked him).
Sympathetic? Just check out how Michael’s icy blue eyes, which used to penetrate the world with a clarity of purpose, are now clouded by doubt.
Standing in his mother’s kitchen, he can’t remember where the PowerBars are kept. For a moment he can’t even think what PowerBars are called.
But PowerBars are the least of Michael’s problems. Power is.
“The worst thing in the world for a man like Michael is to show weakness,” Isaacs said. “He is prey to fits and emotional instability. He has lost his ability to strategize. His short-term memory, too. Michael has to write everything down. That’s not a great thing for a criminal.”
Researching Michael’s condition was “fascinating and moving,” said Isaacs, who met with a number of people who have suffered brain damage. They included a woman who told him: “I’d love to be witty again, just to make a joke.”
As with co-star Clarke (who hails from Australia), Isaacs is neither Irish nor American. He was born in Liverpool 44 years ago and has shown versatility on the stage (where he starred in British productions of the epic “Angels in America”) as well as in such films as “Black Hawk Down,” “Armageddon,” “The Patriot,” “Peter Pan” (he played Captain Hook) and in Harry Potter films as sinister Lucius Malfoy. He starred in the BBC miniseries “The State Within” and guest-starred on “The West Wing.”
Affable and funny — quite the opposite of Michael — Isaacs says he crafted his “Brotherhood” portrayal beginning with Michael’s voice.
“I’m a phonetics buff,” he explained. “I’ve always had an ability to kind of absorb, then mirror people’s accents.”
So it’s a snap shifting into Michael-speak.
“I start with it in the car in the morning,” he said, “and very often my wife has to remind me to stop when I get home.”
That temporary home is Providence, where the series is shot, and where he was joined by his family: wife Emma Hewitt, a documentary filmmaker, and their daughters Lily, 5, and 2-year-old Ruby, who was born in Rhode Island during season one.
Isaacs presumably holds answers to many questions the “Brotherhood” faithful will soon be stewing over.
But it’s the uncertainty that he loves best about this unpredictable saga. He recalls that when he first got the bid to play Michael, he asked, “Where’s the story going?”
The producers’ reply: “We don’t know.”
“Then I asked, `Where has Michael been for seven years, and why has he come back to Providence? Because that’s the key to the whole show.”’
“They said, `We don’t know. What do you think?’
“Some part of me thought I should run a million miles away from this project,” Isaacs said with a smile of wonderment. “But some part of me thought, ‘Take a leap!’”
Along with his viewers, he’s still happily aloft.