`The Bretts': not in same class as the Bellamys

The Bretts PBS, Sundays, Oct. 11-Nov. 29, 9 p.m. (check local listings). Starring Norman Rodway, Barbara Murray, Belinda Lang, David Yelland, and George Winter. Presented by WGBH, Boston. There's a lot of old ``Masterpiece Theatre'' in this new ``Masterpiece Theatre.'' Also, a bit of the theatricality of the recent series about the world of British vaudeville, ``Lost Empires,'' and a great deal of the household drama of the classic ``Upstairs, Downstairs.'' For good measure, there's quite a bit of George S. Kaufman's ``The Royal Family'' thrown into the mix as well.

It would be easy to call it ``Upstage, Downstage.'' But that would imply that ``The Bretts'' merits equal consideration with the Bellamys of ``Upstairs, Downstairs.'' It doesn't. ``The Bretts'' is a jarring, inconsistently plotted soap opera about a theatrical family with clashing egos, thundering ambitions, and a home life constantly endangered by a shortage of money and an excess of romance.

Its humor is arch: ``If you insist on violence, could you make it a body blow, because I've got a matinee tomorrow.''

Its many story lines are replete with loose ends as each episode seems to focus on a different character and seldom returns to that character's moment in the spotlight in detail again. I have a feeling that its many writers tried their hand at scripts without ever reading what the previous writers had written.

``The Bretts'' has some lively and flamboyant moments in the midst of some puzzlingly inconsistent characterizations. Norman Rodway and Barbara Murray put on a fine and believable noisy display as the constantly battling lovebirds.

But ``The Bretts'' comes across as uneven clich'ed selections from an uneven clich'ed series rather than a complete series itself. There are so many loose ends when it is all over that I am sure somebody at ``Masterpiece Theatre'' hopes for a return engagement.

Take my advice, viewers, and find the original ``Upstairs, Downstairs,'' which is airing again on many Public Broadcasting Service stations.

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