Family first, then blood and gore

Times Staff Writer

“The Black Donnellys” is tripe. Not tripe as in, “I’d recommend a medium-bodied Cab with that,” but tripe as in rubbish.

NBC sent out five episodes; I sat through three before throwing the DVD on the Donate to Public Library pile. I would like to apologize in advance to the library.

“The Black Donnellys” is from writer-director Paul Haggis (of “Crash” fame) and writer-producer Bobby Moresco (of lesser “Crash” fame). “Crash,” when it won the Oscar for best picture last year, set off its own tripe versus tripe argument.

“The Black Donnellys” is a shorter discussion: It’s Haggis and Moresco playing at a Scorsese street epic, with children as the stars and character actors as dramatic guardians.


NBC pushed up the show’s debut by a week to replace the low-rated “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” Aaron Sorkin’s extremely wrought piece about the showbiz mafia. But “The Black Donnellys” feels about as real as pasta dyed green for St. Patrick’s Day.

The show opens with a character named Joey “Ice Cream” (Keith Nobbs), wearing prison orange; two detectives are asking him about the location of certain bodies. Joey feigns ignorance before launching brightly into a spiel: “There’s two things that happened to Jimmy Donnelly that made him turn out the way he did.”

The way Joey starts in, you half expect a song-and-dance number. Instead he delivers a snappy monologue full of Jimmys and Tommys and Sals, and say, who’s the dame? As the pilot unfolds, it’s all pretty easy on the eyes, until you realize what you’re watching is nothing so palpable as young actors getting their mob-movie GEDs.

On Showtime’s fine “Brotherhood,” in which Irish mob fealty is presented as the push-pull between a politician and his gangster brother, there’s a world that’s earned. “The Black Donnellys” (black as in black Irish) is in a familiar-seeming if less tangible place -- it might be Hell’s Kitchen, but it feels like Scorsese’s Creek.

Our hero is Tommy Donnelly (Jonathan Tucker), whose core -- both in terms of Pilates and values -- is strong, and whose heart belongs to Jenny (Olivia Wilde), who works the counter at her pop’s diner (while Tommy, an art student, draws her portrait on a paper placemat). The other Donnelly brothers break down recognizably as Kevin (Billy Lush), the Fredo one; Jimmy (Tom Guiry), the hothead with a bum leg; and Sean (Michael Stahl-David), who, through no fault of his own, is in intensive care after being beaten to a pulp.

On “The Sopranos,” kids like the Donnellys get a one- to two-episode arc and are killed off for doing something properly stupid, like holding up the wrong card game. But Haggis and Moresco, both of whom come from the TV world, including Haggis’ short-lived “EZ Streets,” are in the romanticizing business.

Tommy, who we’re told will take over the neighborhood, kills but only in the interest of cleaning up his brothers’ messes and assuaging his own, long-fermented guilt. He’s so virtuous and regal and forlorn that even when he strips down and takes a sledgehammer to dispose of a body, it looks like an ad for the comeback of briefs over boxers.

Later, he hoses off the blood and his feelings. Haggis and Moresco try to up the resonance factor by kicking off episodes with on-screen, Irish-themed epigrams, quoting from Yeats, for instance: “Too long a sacrifice can make a stone of the heart.”


Yes, and too long a scene can make a pebble of the brain. The disposal of the bookie belonging to the Italians in episode two takes forever, and the soundtrack and trip to the local hardware emporium can only dimly echo the genre the producers are violating. On “The Black Donnellys,” kids kill -- and pummel, and conflagrate -- to music by Snow Patrol and Aimee Mann.


‘The Black Donnellys’


Where: NBC

When: 10 to 11 tonight

Rating: TV-14 V (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 14, with an advisory for violence)