Between Heroes, Friday Night Lights and the Comedy Night Done Right lineup, NBC has officially become my network of choice among the big four, replacing FOX’s golden boy status. And whereas my love of all things FOX persuaded me to take my chances with some iffy newbies during their ’04-’05 golden age, NBC’s winning streak gave me cause to check out the pilot of The Black Donnellys, NBC’s new drama focusing on four brothers (they’re not actually black, they’re Black Irish, like Thin Lizzy. No, wait…) coming of age or something in the seedy Hell’s Kitchen neighborhood. And yeah, it also happens to be written by Oscar winning scribe of Crash and Million Dollar Baby, Paul Haggis.
Haggis is not a man who fears the cliche. In the first fifteen minutes alone, you’ve already got references, conscious or unconscious, to about a half-dozen different movies (ones about crime, growing up in New York, or just about being Irish). In fact, Donnellys begins with an almost completely unnecessary flashback sequence featuring the Donnellys as kids, supposedly there to show the event that made lead badboy Jimmy Donnelly who he was (his leg got run over and now he walks kinda funny! OMG!) but really just there to echo the kids-before-they-were-badasses scenes in A Bronx Tale, Goodfellas and above all, Sleepers, which was also about four kids growing up as petty criminals in Hell’s Kitchen, and even starred Jonathan Tucker, now present as protagonist Tommy Donnelly.
Tommy is the only one of the Donnellys who has aspirations beyond the New York crime world, studying to be an artist (possibly at NYU–he’s seen at one point walking across Washington Square with a girl, talking about Blow Up). But alas, Tommy cares a little too much about his brothers, and when they start fucking with some higher ups, he can’t help himself from jumping back into their world to save them. Tommy’s transformation from family peace-keeper to Michael Corleone seems way too fast way too soon–the show’s principal conflict, at least as pitched by the previews, was Tommy’s struggle to keep himself decent without abandoning his family, and by the time the bodies start to pile up by the end of the episode, it seems like he’s pretty well cast his lot.
Another conflict which seems like it should have been kept in the background for at least a few episodes longer is Tommy’s love for Jenny Reilly, the unrequited paramour of his youth and adolescence. By the end of the episode, Jenny, played by Olivia Wilde (who will forever be known as the chick Mischa Barton hooks up with for a few memorable episodes of The O.C.) had already confessed her love for Tommy, leaving him dumbfounded. If their long-term unspoken love had been given a few episodes to simmer, it might mean something, as such, this half-hearted declaration of love just feels underwhelming.
The one thing about the show that demonstrates promise–besides the always-interesting function of the unreliable narrator, provided here by neighborhood friend Joey Ice Cream under the premise of a police interrogation–is the finale, in which Tommy takes out a trio of high-power New York mob figures in an attempt to protect his brother from his imminent assassination. Set to the risingly anthemic strains of Snow Patrol’s “Open Your Eyes” (thus establishing SP as THE go-to band for TV climaxes, here’s hoping this is as big a hit as “Chasing Cars”), the show demonstrates the directorial verve and actual edge badly missing from the rest of the episode, and hopefully provides more of a taste of things to come.
Even this scene, though, is plagued by mob movie past, clearly echoing The Godfather, down to the presence of a McLusky-esque crooked cop. Ultimately, there’s really just nothing fresh about The Black Donnellys whatsoever–the family and cultural dynamic is nothing new (basically amounting to “brothers love each other unconditionally,” and “Irish people really like drinking”), the humor is forced (Joey Ice Cream says he spent all night with a lady who wouldn’t stop and GUESS WHAT HE WAS ACTUALLY TALKING ABOUT HIS NAGGING MOTHER!!) and as a network TV show, just about every sentence without cursing feels insincere (the one thing, besides mob dudes, that all the movies mentioned thusfar have in common).
The Black Donnellys is blessed with a great time slot (10:00 on Mondays, right after Heroes, one of the hottest and best shows on TV right now), so it’ll probably get a few weeks’ clemency to try to pick up steam and viewers–apparently the first half was watched by a respectable if unspectacular 10 million viewers, but about four million of those had tuned out by the second half. And though I’m not willing to completely rule out the possibility that it could get its footing by then, unless they turn things around real quick, it looks like NBC’s winning streak might be nearing its end.