Review: The Black Donnelly’s… meh?

Tommy DonnellyNBC has been making a huge push for it’s new show The Black Donnelly’s. As if you may not have heard already it’s the new show from multiple-Oscar winner Paul Haggis. It aired last night at 10 p.m. nearly commercial free. The executives figured the Irish-crime-family-coming-of-age story centered around four brothers in NYC would be a better fit with the runaway train known as Heroes. Speaking of, last nights ep was the best of the season yet. Gotta love young Hiro.

But back to the pedestrian show titled The Black Donnelly’s. In a way it’s fitting the show was created by Paul Haggis, who I’m firmly convinced sold his soul to someone for the right to birth not only this show but also the travesty known as Crash. Haggis may just be the most unskilled successful writer in Hollywood working today.

The good news in all of this is that fans of the much better written and directed show, Studio 60, can rejoice that the brilliant Aaron Sorkin show will be back sooner rather than later.

So you’re probably wondering then what’s wrong with The Black Donnelly’s? Short of writing a thesis paper on it out of the gates the show is all wrong. Haggis’s decision to tell the story of the Donnelly brothers through an unreliable narrator takes all the power and emotional heft out what could have been a fairly powerful coming of age story.

The four Donnelly brothers: thuggish Jimmy, artist/good guy Tommy, lothario Sean, and Kevin, who seems to not really have any stereotype at all (except that he likes to gamble and you guessed it – he can’t gamble!), wade through the NYC underworld of organized crime. They operate out of a bar in their “neighborhood” cause that’s what Irish brothers do and they all cover for each other’s faults, cause again that’s what the Irish do – they’re loyal to a fault.

So let’s say Kevin gets into trouble with a gambling debt, well Jimmy’s gonna rob a truck to try and get the money and when that doesn’t happen they kidnap the Italian bookie. And so when it turns out, surprise again! that the bookie is the nephew of the Italian mob boss, well you get the idea. It’s like a character remarks how e”veryone stereotypes the Irish as drunks and fighters, but sometimes you get so angry from hearing that it makes you just want to fight.” And then a fight breaks out while all the other Irish characters are getting drunk. Thanks Paul Haggis for admitting you write based on cliches and stereotypes and then still go ahead and use those in your story. It’s like Crash all over again.

I’m getting very angry heah in Southie. I want a Guinness. I want to fight! Cause I’m Irish and I know nothing else!

It’s like trying to imagine a complex and gripping drama and then filtering it through the lowest common denominator. Along the way Marissa’s lesbian lover from the O.C. shows up (Olivia Wilde) in some context as the childhood tomgirl who happens to turn out to be a babe and the eventual love interest of series protagonist Tommy. Because if you thought this show was about four brothers it’s really about how good guy Tommy ended up become the head of the Irish underworld in NYC.

It’s almost taxing just trying to get through the plot without laughing… or vomitting. Either one would be an appropriate reaction. It’s gotten slammed in the reviews, but truth be told the show isn’t nearly as bad as the critics would have you believe. It’s definitely not worth investing any time into, but the worst part of the show is that it is redeemable. If Paul Haggis was asked to leave the show and some good writers came on board I would give this show more of a chance.

For the record the name Black Donnelly is derived not from the metaphorical use of the color black to foreshadow the Donnelly brother’s descent into the criminally evil underworld (although I wouldn’t put it past Haggis to bash the audience over the head in that manner). No, it’s a reference to the family, and notably Tommy, being descendents of the Black Irish. Coincidentally Canada has a famous Black Donnelly family who were murdered.

But, since we don’t want to be entirely negative nebobs, we’ll give a big shout out to actor Jonathan Tucker, who plays the lead character Tommy. Tucker is such an engaging actor that when the final twist of the pilot goes down, it makes the ending that much more riveting. Almost enough to tune in for the second week. We said almost enough. Oddly Tucker starred in the movie Sleepers, which is what this show should have been trying to strive for. Instead, it plays like a cocktail of Showtime’s Brotherhood-lite with a splash of stereotype-club-soda.

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