Take the melodramatic relationships and good looks of Dawson’s Creek (don’t forget the soft indie rock that plays under everything for additional heartstring pulling), get the entire cast drunk on Jameson’s Irish Whisky, give them a thorough pub brawl beating by the members of The Pogues and Flogging Molly, and then dump them in a New York mob neighborhood and you’re getting somewhere close to what NBC’s single-season show was trying to come across as.
The Donnellys — Jimmy, Tommy, Kevin, and Sean — are four brothers who have grown up in a small Irish neighborhood in New York, and now as adults are trying to carve out something resembling a living, and while not trying to kill each other, are standing up to the powerful Italian mob that wants to take over the neighborhood. Jimmy, is the owner of the Firecracker Lounge and as eldest is also leader of the small crimes that perpetual gambler Kevin and baby-brother Sean commit with him. Tommy, on the other hand, has foresworn crime and hopes to make a living as an artist. But his love for his brother, as well as his secret love for childhood friend Jenny, keeps him in the neighborhood.
When one of Jimmy’s latest schemes, which involves the Italian mob, goes sour and then continues to snowball from there, Tommy’s lifelong separation from the criminal mischief of his brothers is severed, as he kills not only the local Italian mob boss, but the neighborhoods’ Irish mob boss who he feels has betrayed them to save Jimmy’s life. But with Tommy’s hands covered in blood, and the neighborhood in need of someone to protect them from being overrun, he begins down a one-way path that seems to have been waiting for him to turn down since he was a small boy.
The show is narrated as a recollection by Joey Ice Cream from an interrogation room. Joey is the kind of guy that just never shuts up, and has the kind of voice and tone that makes you just want to hit him so he’ll close his mouth for a moment. It is a style that takes a little getting used to, but does add an air of myth and legend to the tale of the Donnellys, with undertones of embellishment on the actual truths of the Donnelly’s capers.
Tommy’s tale could basically be described as an Irish Michael Corleone. As the only brother who, until the pilot episode, has remained out of trouble and out of family criminal affairs, his turn is fascinating to watch as he damns himself to save his brothers. Tommy, brought to the small screen by Jonathan Tucker, is the most captivating character to watch and it is his evolution and transformation which will bring the viewer back for each episode. The other characters have all been locked in their ways, and while they each have a unique characterizations and depth, offer merely plot points to further push Tommy toward his ultimate new role in the streets he grew up in. And despite the show’s dizzying array and variety of characters, writers and creators Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco, are able to keep tabs on everyone pretty well. This pair, who also wrote the screenplay for Crash, are no stranger to layering multiple storylines and characters. Just pay very close attention to the pilot to get all the names and relationships straight, and you’ll be just fine.
Despite the show being on a network station, it is quite violent at times, and does not shy in the least from the despicable acts that the Donnellys and others commit or the very rough life of the streets and the consequences for actions that the characters take. The only draw back is that the show had to bow down to some sense of self-imposed censorship in order make it past the FCC. The closest thing to compare it to is watching The Sopranos on A&E. You know there should be more actual carnage being shown on screen, and you feel slighted when Jimmy points a gun at someone’s head and pulls the trigger, and instead of getting a satisfying shot of a head explosion, you get only a sharp cut to black. But what violence does make it to the screen is the gritty real deal, which adds a flavor of authenticity needed for a down-to-earth crime series.
NBC only showed six of the thirteen episodes on television before pulling it from the schedule. But the network is currently showing all of the episodes on their website, and Universal has brought The Black Donnellys to DVD in a three-disc set with all thirteen episodes. Universal does right by giving the show an excellent presentation, in the shows original 1.78:1 aspect ratio, a solid Dolby Digital 5.1 soundtrack, and English subtitles for the hearing impaired, and packages all three discs in compact and glossy packaging. Unfortunately, they have forgone any other extras, save for two three minutes of deleted scenes from episode three.
The Black Donnellys was a show that took a gamble with bigger odds than one of Kevin’s long shots at the horse track. Solid scripted television that actually gets noticed is a hard thing to come by nowadays, and unfortunately Haggis and Moresco placed their bets and lost to a bunch of amateur hour Star Search wannabes and attention-seeking brats. But at the very least their crumpled betting ticket is now available on DVD, and we can at least take a look at what should have been a winning horse.
The Black Donnellys: The Complete Series is available on DVD September 4, 2007.
NBC.com is currently showing the episodes online.