How an endless parade of tragedies broke Brothers and Sisters’ bond

After Thirtysomething and before This Is Us, Brothers and Sisters was the emotionally manipulative ensemble drama of choice. In 2006, this glass of white whine introduced us to the Walker clan, helmed by seemingly perfect couple Nora (Sally Field) and William (Tom Skerritt). After he suffered a fatal heart attack at their sprawling California mansion, however, it emerged that William was a serial cheater who had plundered the pension fund of Ojai Foods, the family company. Reeling from these revelations, Nora and her five adult children helped each other survive his death and its aftershocks.

The show tended towards schmaltz, with most interpersonal conflicts resolved by the time the credits rolled. It also indulged in soapy tropes, including the discovery of William’s secret love child Rebecca, played by Emily VanCamp, later followed by the revelation that she didn’t share Walker DNA after all, and so was free to marry Nora’s son Justin (Dave Annable).

But although it stretched credulity, Brothers and Sisters was grounded by strong acting and heartfelt moments, including Nora and her eldest daughter, rightwing pundit Kitty (Calista Flockhart), struggling to reconcile their political differences, and PTSD-affected soldier Justin agonising over his return to Afghanistan. Field rightly won an Emmy for her role; Rachel Griffiths and Matthew Rhys showed off their charm and comic timing as working mum Sarah and lawyer Kevin respectively; and Balthazar Getty played oldest son and charisma vacuum Tommy with as much verve as the part demanded.

Sally Field, Calista Flockhart and Rob Lowe.
Dynasty warriors... Sally Field, Calista Flockhart and Rob Lowe. Photograph: Adam Taylor/Disney/Getty

By the end of season four, the family had a lot to deal with: Kitty was coping with the after-effects of cancer treatment, Ojai Foods had finally failed, and Nora’s brother Saul (Ron Rifkin) was diagnosed with HIV. The last thing they needed was another tragedy, but that’s what they got. As Kitty’s husband, Senator Robert McCallister, Rob Lowe was a supporting player, but an essential one – a rock for Kitty through her grief and illness. But he told producers he felt “underutilised” and so Robert’s car soon ploughed into an overturned lorry. Things only got cheerier from there.

Season five saw Kitty switch off her husband’s life support. Nora and Saul’s mum died, Justin and Rebecca got divorced, and Kevin’s husband cheated on him. Rebecca’s mother Holly (Patricia Wettig) developed amnesia, and you wondered whether the writers did too, as the one good thing that happened at the end of season four – the discovery of a lucrative water source on Walker land – seemed to have been forgotten, with Nora taking a job at her local florist to make ends meet.

In a desperate attempt to return to form, the show went back to its uncertain paternity roots, as a horrified Sarah found out that Nora’s first love was her biological dad. Her wedding in the final episode provided the setting for a father-daughter reconciliation and family reunion, but the group bump and grind that resulted was eyeball-searingly embarrassing. Still, it proved that Rob Lowe knew when to quit. If only everyone else had.