*** There are no spoilers until later in this review, and they are clearly marked. ***
If internet rumours are to be believed, Paul Haggis has had this project in the works for the better part of a decade. Those rumours also imply that the box office and critical success of both Million Dollar Baby and Crash has made it much easier for him to find a home for this series about four Irish brothers living in what appears to be Hell's Kitchen, NYC.
I don't put much stock in those rumours, and feel Paul Haggis is being given too much credit for this project. And by too much credit, I mean he's being given ALL of the credit. That's due in large part to NBC's early promotion of the show (which will not premiere until mid-season) having Haggis' name stamped all over it. Not to mention the fact that just about everyone who's heard of this show knows its title is a reference to an Irish family, several of whom were viciously murdered in 1880 in a Southwestern Ontario (Canada) township not far from where Haggis grew up.
Paul Haggis' influence is certainly felt in the pilot episode of this series, which he directed and co-wrote. But the influence of co-writer/creator Bobby Moresco is also very apparent. It's clear that his knowledge of Hell's Kitchen (where he spent his childhood) and the consequences of power struggles between organized crime syndicates in that neighbourhood (Moresco's brother Tommy was murdered there in 1983) provided the perfect setting for Haggis' present-day Donnellys.
For the record, I'm not saying that Haggis hadn't been working on this for a while. In all likelihood, he had. But I do believe that this project found its legs when Haggis and Moresco worked together on Crash. I imagine a conversation between Haggis and Moresco where Haggis presents Moresco with the story of the real-life Black Donnellys and the idea of updating it from the 1800s to the present day. In turn, Moresco is reminded of the Westies, an Irish-American gang from his Hell's Kitchen childhood who often clashed with mafia families.
Those elements combine to form the basis of this new drama, set to take ER's time slot (10pm Thursdays) in January, 2007. NBC clearly has high hopes for this show. And after seeing the pilot, I can see why.
*** SPOILERS BEGIN BELOW ***
Told in narrated flashbacks, but never tipping its hand as to the eventual fates of the characters involved, the pilot buzzes along at breakneck speed. The narration is from a third-person perspective. That person is "Joey Ice Cream", an apparent petty criminal who knows everything and everyone in the neighbourhood. The kind of guy you go to if you want to know where the bodies are. And that's exactly what two detectives want to know.
We're given brief glimpses of the Donnelly boys' childhoods, insight into what made them the young men they are today, but mostly we're told how the brothers came to be, in Joey's opinion, the protectors of the neighbourhood.
Tommy Donnelly (Jonathan Tucker) is the brother with the most going for him...the one who stays out of trouble. Most everyone in the neighbourhood knows he's the one who could make something of himself, or "get out", as Joey Ice Cream puts it. Holding him back, however, are his brothers Sean (Michael Stahl-David), Kevin (Billy Lush) and Jimmy (Tom Guiry), whose constant scheming mean Tommy spends more time keeping them out of jail than pursuing his gift (Tommy is a talented artist).
A plan hatched by Jimmy, Kevin and Sean is necessitated by a five-thousand dollar gambling debt of Kevin's. Against Tommy's advice, the three criminally-inclined brothers kidnap an Italian gangster named Louie Downtown. Unfortunately for the Donnellys, the Italians catch wind of the fact that Louie was snatched by three Irishmen. The Donnellys are instantly implicated by Sal Minetta (Mark Margolis). Minetta's right-hand man Nicky Cottero (Kirk Acevedo) is dispatched to make the Donnellys pay. What follows changes the shape of the family, and in turn the neighbourhood.
*** SPOILERS END HERE ***
The show feels gritty and natural. The writing is perfectly suited to the characters (in as much as network television allows such dialogue to be realistic), as are the actors playing those characters. The show obviously needs a strong lead, and Jonathan Tucker as Tommy is superb. He appears mature beyond his years, which of course the role requires. To this point, most of the other actors are, in relative terms, background...only there to support the story of Tommy's defining day, but they're all solid. I look forward to seeing them all develop.
In a season with an abnormally strong crop of new shows (the pilots of both Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and Shark were very strong), The Black Donnellys appears to be the best of the bunch. Haggis' reworking of a notorious Canadian feud combined with Moresco's perfect setting has me wishing we could skip the next four months. January simply cannot come fast enough for me.
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