After Crash won the Academy Award for Best Picture a year ago, director-cowriter Paul Haggis was quickly branded Public Enemy No. 1 by cineastes of a certain breed, who promptly began using Haggis’s early TV credits—The Facts of Life, The Love Boat—to build a case for his hackdom. That’s kind of like saying Ishtar invalidates the rest of Warren Beatty’s accomplishments. Haggis may have a lot of crap on his rsum, but he helped invent the modern relationship drama as a member of thirtysomething’s writing staff, and his short-lived 1996--97 masterpiece, EZ Streets, was one of the two chief harbingers (the other being Homicide: Life on the Street) of the golden age of crime dramas that began with The Sopranos and continues via The Wire and The Shield.
Haggis’s Oscar success let him write his own ticket, and when NBC announced that he was creating a gritty series about Irish-American organized crime—a major element of EZ Streets—many Haggis torchbearers prayed for the second coming of his greatest accomplishment. The resulting series, The Black Donnellys, never achieves the epic-tragedy scale of EZ Streets, but neither does it try to. EZ Streets felt like a dying man’s last confession; by comparison Donnellyshas the air of a barstool urban legend.
The series follows four sibs in their early twenties, who are loosely based on a real-life 19th-century Ontario outlaw clan but also bear a strong resemblance to the most famous fictional crime family of them all. Like Michael Corleone, Tommy Donnelly (Jonathan Tucker) is the straight arrow who sacrifices his legitimate future. Jimmy (Tom Guiry) is the Sonny-esque hothead, Kevin (Billy Lush) is the Fredo-like dullard, and Sean (Michael Stahl-David) is the fourth Corleone brother we never saw—call him Lothario—who turns every woman he meets into a quivering mass of Jell-O. When they’re not busting the heads of rivals (Irish and Italian alike), the lads try to stay in the good graces of their mother (Kate Mulgrew) and deal with various kinds of girl trouble.
The Donnellys inhabit a grimy, lawless version of Hell’s Kitchen that’s straight out of a 1940s Dead End Kids movie, and this naturally poses a big suspension-of-disbelief problem for New Yorkers who know the area as a hotbed of development (EZ Streets took place in a city that was never named, and setting Donnellys in an unspecified era would have solved a lot of problems). However, Haggis and his cocreator, Bobby Moresco (the cowriter of Crash), shrewdly gave themselves an out in the form of Joey Ice Cream (Keith Nobbs).
Joey is a prisoner who, in a weekly framing device, relates the events of the episode to someone he meets while traversing the penal system (one week he’s being interrogated by cops; the next, he’s talking to his lawyer and so on), and it’s quickly clear that if Joey isn’t making the whole thing up, he’s at least heavily embroidering events (some of the funniest moments come when he’s called out for describing scenes he couldn’t have witnessed, then backpedals to insert himself into the story). Clichs out of Depression-era crime movies—such as Tommy’s lifelong unrequited passion for Jenny Reilly (Olivia Wilde), who runs a failing diner with her ailing dad—can be waved away as the invention of a self-aggrandizing weirdo who watched too much TV as a kid.
If that seems like a huge stretch, rest assured that the performances significantly help buttress the credibility. Kirk Acevedo and Peter Green expertly locate the humor in their terse roles as the Donnellys’ chief adversaries, while Tucker—who displayed a gift for playing wide-eyed innocents in The Virgin Suicides and The Deep End—ensures that the artistically inclined Tommy’s transformation into a ruthless sociopath is thoroughly believable. The pilot, long on exposition, unfortunately burdens Tommy and Jimmy with on-the-nose “he stole my teddy bear” motivations for their deeds. Fortunately, the archetypal nature of the characters soon removes the need for such devices, and the pretentiousness gives way to crackerjack comic relief (most notably when guest star Kevin Corrigan tries to teach Jimmy and Kevin how to run a bookie operation). There are better series that offer more sophisticated takes on similar material—Showtime’s stunning Brotherhood, for example—but The Black Donnellys’ blend of melodrama, low humor, and as much violence as the producers can get past standards and practices yields a freewheeling, boozy energy that’s awfully hard to resist.