It’s ironic that NBC put Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip on hiatus to launch The Black Donnellys: Both come from esteemed writers (Aaron Sorkin for 60; Crash’s Paul Haggis for Donnellys); both are shot in somber amber-brown hues to signal their serious artistic import.
But whereas 60 was meant to be a thinking viewer’s froth, The Black Donnellys is a thinking viewer’s head-scratcher: A dense family saga about four shady Irish brothers in a rough New York neighborhood who mix it up with Italian mobsters, the series is equal parts thriller and soap opera. I’d break down all the boys for you, but they’re just varying degrees of hotheadedness, with Tommy (Jonathan Tucker) the smartest. That means that he feels conscience pangs when he has to kill and double-cross, and he’s the lucky unlucky guy whom gorgeous Jenny (Olivia Wilde, The O.C.’s most-excellent lesbian) falls for.
The network emphasizes Haggis’ Crash credit, but it’s his 1996 TV series EZ Streets, a short-lived muddle, that Donnellys really resembles. Haggis equates the slow revealing of character and plot with classy writing; you’ll probably experience it as stuff you can see coming a mile away.
The acting is uniformly excellent, but the guy who’s the chief Irish villain (Peter Greene) is saddled with a lame device — he carries an ax rather than a gun. Chop-chop, no bang-bang. Good luck, all: Following Heroes with these morose antiheroes is gutsy and, like these characters, probably doomed. C+