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The Black Donnellys – The Best Drama on Television?

By Bert Ehrmann
April 3, 2007

The Black DonnellysI fear the curse of my poison pen – or is it my poison keyboard? Last Fall I declared the new television series Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Nine as surefire hits and Heroes as a dud. In fact, my exact comment on Heroes was, "Unfortunately, Heroes has a lot of sloppy, unfocused, writing and stock characters…" But apparently, my appraisal of these series was wrong since both Studio 60 and The Nine have been all but canceled while Heroes was a breakout success becoming one of the most watched new shows of the season.

Oh well, what does America know?

What I fear is that if I call the new series The Black Donnellys the "best drama on network television" I will almost certainly doom that show to oblivion, much liked I doomed Studio 60 last year. I suppose what I should say to guarantee that The Black Donnellys is a hit is that it's one of the worst shows on television. That the writing of The Black Donnellys lacks focus and the characters of the series are so twisted that they lack any real connection with the audience. Heck, I don’t even like the theme song of the show.

That's what I should say, but I'm not gonna say that. I really believe that The Black Donnellys is the best drama on network television.

The Black DonnellysIf you've never seen The Black Donnellys, and the low Nielson Ratings the series receives on a weekly basis tells me that you're probably not watching, the series follows the four Donnelly brothers; Tommy, Jimmy, Kevin and Sean. These "Black Irish" brothers grew up in a rough New York City neighborhood and as children raised hell stealing whatever they could get their hands on. After a hit and run driver left brother Jimmy crippled, Tommy (Jonathan Tucker) vowed, and was able, in turning his life around.

All was going well until the other three brothers, who never cleaned up their act like Tommy, found themselves on the wrong side of both the Irish and Italian mob with Tommy the only one smart enough to find a way out of the trouble. Unfortunately for Tommy, his “way out” meant murdering the heads of these two mafia families throwing his entire future into question.

If the Italians don't find out who killed their boss then brother of the slain Irish boss “Dokey” will. And "Dokey" has plans for whomever killed his brother, and those plans involve a chair, some rope and an axe.

More conflicted than Tony Soprano, Tommy finds himself doing things he never imagined in order to keep his brothers alive – and that's what makes The Black Donnellys so interesting. In any other show, Tommy would be the villain. He chops up bodies in order to dispose of them and brutally beats up a high school friend in order to collect a gambling debt. Here, though, Tommy is portrayed as a relatively nice guy being forced into a life a crime who does these disturbing things in order to keep his family alive and together.

That is if Dokey doesn't catch him first.

The Black DonnellysCreated by Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco (Crash), the narrative structure of The Black Donnellys is unique in that the story is told via a series of flashbacks from one time Donnelly brothers friend Joey Ice Cream (Keith Nobbs). Joey is in police custody and is essentially ratting out the Donnellys to the authorities in order to save himself from prison. Joey introduces and narrates each episode as if he were in at a police station being interviewed by detectives.

Sharing many of the same themes of The Departed (2005) and, to some extend, the Showtime series Brotherhood, The Black Donnellys manages to tell a gripping and compelling story while still obeying the “not too violent” and “no cursing” rules of network television.

There, I've done it. I've doomed The Black Donnellys to an early cancellation forcing the actors in the series to venture out into the Hollywood hills to look for new acting work or, worse, a gig hosting a prime time game show. Oh well.

Catch The Black Donnellys on NBC Monday nights at 10:00 P.M. or watch episodes online over at NBC.com while you still can.