If by any chance you think a new television series about four Irish-American brothers in New York is going to avoid thievery, barroom scuffles and violence-laced tragedy, then you could be safely accused of a basic ignorance about popular storytelling. Especially if you know the series has a myth-courting, danger-laced title like The Black Donnellys. NBC’s newest one-hour drama is one of the more open-faced attempts yet by a big network to find something, anything, that will bring a Sopranos-ish seal of gloomy, grown-up, bloody prestige to formula-friendly prime time. And since there aren’t many criminals heading major series in the Big Four universe — Jack Bauer’s highly watchable constitutional shortcutting notwithstanding — there’s an initial tendency to forgive the regrettable cliché of a crime-friendly band of good-looking Irish roustabouts who steal their way into scrapes, brotherly-love their way into worse scrapes, and, naturally, kill, thinking it will get them out of those scrapes. That’s because sinners, as we all know, are infinitely more inviting TV company than do-gooders. I don’t know about you, but I’ve never watched Touched by an Angel. Touched by the Devil? Sign me up.
Prime time, however, is not unlike a carefully controlled syndicate: If you don’t pony up the protection to the ratings-greedy networks — comforting stereotypes, action, suspense, romantic-comedy humor, moments of warmth, beautiful young people — you’ll get cement-blocked off the air. The Black Donnellys’ co-creator Paul Haggis knows this, because before he became a movie darling — nabbing a Best Picture Oscar for Crash and writing Million Dollar Baby and the Iwo Jima films for Clint Eastwood — he was a TV guy who, in 1996, managed to get a brooding, adult labyrinth of a show about cops and criminals called EZ Streets on CBS. That mesmerizing anomaly lasted about as long as a raindrop on a steam grate, but in its intelligent bleakness, it hinted at what the massaging of genre could do, and certainly acted as a precursor for the uncompromising artistry of lauded cable series like The Wire and The Sopranos.
So now that Haggis is a man with clout, why is The Black Donnellys — which he wrote with his Crash collaborator Bobby Moresco (and directed, as far as the pilot goes) — so blah? It certainly doesn’t lack for street intrigue, although it’s obnoxiously framed as the cell-house remembrances of a weasely hanger-on named Joey Ice Cream (Keith Nobbs). Right away, you feel like you’re in a subpar GoodFellas narration universe. Through voice-over thumbnails, we learn about the four Donnellys: Jimmy (Thomas Guiry) is the hothead who never got over two ugly boyhood incidents, a car crushing his leg and the fact that Italians whacked the Donnellys’ union-rep dad while he sat in a car outside; Kevin (Billy Lush) is the itchy gambler; Sean (Michael Stahl-David) loves the ladies; and Tommy (Jonathan Tucker) is the Michael Corleone–like sensitive soul with his whole life ahead of him — he’s studying art — but also a drive to keep his brothers out of trouble. The pilot’s domino-tipping scenario lays out the many ways this quartet’s familial devotion is a lifesaver and a dream crusher, from Kevin’s gambling debt, which ignites Jimmy’s ill-conceived kidnapping scenario, which infuriates a climber in the Italian mob named Nicky (Kirk Acevedo), which leads to a brutal retaliation against Sean, which leads Tommy to think . . . well, you get the idea. If people knew how to end these things, there wouldn’t be a series.
In a universe like this, women become the elements of grace who must represent the way out, and Haggis and Moresco give us raven-haired beauty Jenny Reilly (Olivia Wilde), who helps her grandpa run a diner. A youthful tomboyishness made her the fifth Donnelly growing up, but now she’s married, and aside from an on-again/off-again flirtation with Tommy, she isn’t too pleased with the path her childhood playmates have taken. Unfortunately, Jenny is pretty much it for anything outside of the crime stuff, and while she is appealing enough — if maybe a little unbelievable as an ex–stickball player, as flashbacks show — it’s too big a symbolic burden, considering the wan charisma of the titular foursome. The brothers’ lives are so far (based on five episodes sent in advance) entirely defined by the whirlpool of gangster shenanigans; it’s hard for us as viewers to get a gauge on their relationship to a recognizable outside world. (Unlike Showtime’s Brotherhood, which earns its Mob thrills by crafting a web of corruption themes that encompasses everything from city politics to the intricacies of a failing marriage.) Here, we only see Jimmy fly off the handle, Tommy mope and berate his siblings, Kevin worry about money, and the Zeppo-like Sean make out with a girl Tommy is interested in.
And unfortunately, the young actors on display aren’t compelling enough to make us care much beyond their sometimes stupidly self-induced crises. The Gordon Willis–inspired cinematography, where no indoor or outdoor space can ever be too dark, may invoke the epic shadow-filled portent of Godfather days past. But with The Black Donnellys, you mostly worry that the darkness around the edges, rather than heightening a sense of lives that reflect the abyss, will just swallow these shallow toughs whole.
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Comedian Andrew “Dice” Clay is 50 this year, and he’s quite familiar with the perdition that is show-biz Siberia since his SRO days in the early ’90s as a notorious shouter of dirty poems and misogynistic, race-taunting one-liners quickly flamed out. (I guess he forgot that we all ultimately outgrow nursery rhymes.) Once respectably brawny in his trademark motorcycle jackets, the jowly, fridge-size hulk that prowls around VH-1’s new reality series Dice Undisputed is initially startling: When he wears long sleeveless sweatshirts, from the back he looks like he could be cast as Gandalf’s bodyguard. Dice is jazzed to reclaim his former glory, even though the act he brings to a small New Jersey club date is the same alpha-palooka shtick. But if you’re a regular of the cable channel’s open-surveillance portraits of damaged-goods celebrity — Breaking Bonaduce, Being Bobby Brown and Shooting Sizemore — you will inevitably tune in to Dice Undisputed for delusion, not inspiration. And there it is in the first episode: a former headliner sincerely explaining to his agent that he will fill stadiums again someday, and an agent who says, “There’s a difference between dreams and fantasies.” The agent then prematurely ends the meeting . . . to take a call from Debbie Gibson.
As Dice himself might cruelly howl onstage to augment a particularly stinging insult: “OHHH!”
THE BLACK DONNELLYS | NBC | Mondays, 10 p.m. (Pilot rerun Thursday, March 1, 10 p.m.)
DICE UNDISPUTED | VH-1 | Premieres Sunday, March 4, 10:30 p.m.