Tuesday, May 22, 2018
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Irish family stew: 'The Black Donnellys' combines loyalty, violence, drama


The Donnelly brothers are, from left, Michael Stahl-David as Sean, Billy Lush as Kevin, Thomas Guiry as Jimmy, and Jonathan Tucker as Tommy.


Nobody ever said that the luck of the Irish was always good luck. For proof of that, one need look no further than the star-crossed Donnelly brothers. If it weren't for incredibly bad luck, those poor schmoes wouldn't have any luck at all.

The four Donnellys are young, working-class, Irish-American brothers living in the famously tough Hell's Kitchen neighborhood of New York City. There's Jimmy, the hot-headed member of the Donnelly brood and the one with drug problem; Kevin, a dim bulb and a gambler who can't seem to catch a break, and Sean, the youngest brother and the one who fancies himself a ladies man.

Tommy Donnelly, an aspiring artist, is the only one in the bunch who seems to have the smarts and the ambition to break free of the family's hardscrabble background and make a real life for himself. But because his first loyalty is always to the family, that may never happen.

The brothers are the main characters in a powerful new midseason dramatic series called The Black Donnellys, which premieres at 10 tonight on NBC. For weeks the network has been bombarding viewers with promos for the program, which was created by Oscar winners Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, who between them helped put together such big-screen hits as Crash, Million Dollar Baby, and Letters from Iwo Jima.

The show is dark, both figuratively and literally. Sometimes, in fact, it's hard to see what's going on in the ill-lit barrooms, street corners, and basements frequented by the characters. It's also plenty violent, with occasional touches of humor, not unlike HBO's The Sopranos. Its characters and story lines are equally complex, but unlike its cable counterpart, the show's language is considerably reined in.

An impressive ensemble cast is headed by Jonathan Tucker (Pulse, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre), who is terrific as Tommy, the conflicted central character, and Thomas Guiry (Mystic River) who brings the perfect manic touch to brother Jimmy, a big-hearted guy who can go from boisterous glee to fearsome violence in the blink of an eye.

Olivia Wilde (The O.C.) plays Jenny Reilly, a lifelong pal of the Donnelly boys who has grown up to be a gorgeous and spirited young woman with more than a friendly interest in Tommy.

Though they bicker constantly and occasionally brawl with each other, the brothers' family bond is stronger than anything else in their lives. In the pilot episode, when Kevin's gambling debts become overwhelming, he and Jimmy kidnap Louie the bookie, the nephew of the local Italian mob chief. It takes the Italians about 10 minutes to figure out who snatched their bookie, and in retribution, they administer a savage beating to the first Donnelly they see, the unlucky Sean.

That gets Tommy involved, and before long he finds himself descending into the life he always suspected he'd never be able to leave behind.

The show can seem a bit disjointed at times, so it helps that there's an unofficial narrator, a small-time crook and friend of the Donnellys who goes by the name of "Joey Ice Cream." Though Joey's lively commentary isn't always 100 percent accurate - he somehow pops up in some of the pivotal scenes, whether he was really there or not - he helps tie things together, and sometimes his musings are enlightening. Like this bit of insight:

"The Irish have always been the victims of negative stereotype," he says. "I mean, people think we're all drunks and brawlers, and sometimes that gets you

so mad, all you want to do is get drunk and punch somebody."

Based on the first few episodes, the show seems engaging and entertaining. It's populated by good guys who sometimes do bad things, and bad guys who have a little good in them, and really bad guys who are flat-out monsters.

Oh, and about that title. Haggis says the show's name is a reference to an infamous Canadian family of Irish immigrants, the original "Black Donnellys," who were massacred by vigilantes in the late 19th century in Ontario, not far from where he grew up.

Much of the show's content, however, is said to be based on co-creator Moresco's experiences growing up in Hell's Kitchen.

NBC had originally planned to premiere the Donnellys in early March, after the end of the February sweeps period. But with its disappointing new series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip getting terrible ratings, the network started that show's hiatus a week early and inserted Donnellys in its time slot. Whether Studio 60 will ever return is anybody's guess.

In the meantime, The Black Donnellys has an excellent shot at building its own solid ratings. The Irish may have their share of luck, but in this case, it's the viewers willing to give this top-notch show a try who will be the lucky ones.

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