It’s tempting to write off The Black Donnellys (premiering Monday night at 10 p.m. EST on NBC) as The Sopranos Lite. And, to be fair, in many ways it is.
It’s got the same greasy thrill of the underworld aesthetic that the superior HBO series has. Its one differing trait—that it traces how a gang of mobsters got to the top instead of starting that chronicle when the mobsters were already at the top—isn’t sufficiently different enough to set it far enough apart from Tony and his crew. Even the larger themes (the importance of family, the gradual corrupting influence of crime) are major Sopranos themes (not to mention major themes of those other two modern documents of the mob—The Godfather movies and Goodfellas). Add in the fact that the series comes from the much-vilified Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco (the Oscar-winning screenwriters of Best Picture winner Crash; Haggis, in addition, was responsible for the script for the previous Best Picture winner, Million Dollar Baby, too), and you have what seems like a recipe for a hubristic failure.
What’s remarkable is that The Black Donnellys isn’t a failure. In fact, it’s really quite good if you can overlook all of the things it cribs from greater works. Haggis’ direction, in particular, is thrillingly cinematic. His camera is always moving, taking the point-of-view of a young mobster on the run or a car about to run over a young child or even taking a Gods-eye view of a beating. It’s not horribly original stuff, but on basic network television, where the same handful of shots seems to turn up on every show, it feels strikingly fresh.
The script isn’t quite as strong as the direction, but it’s good enough to keep you watching, filled with twists and turns and a final reversal that throws the rest of the pilot into question. In the wake of the simpleminded Crash, Haggis was held up for scorn because of a script doctoring gig he did on Walker, Texas Ranger and earlier work on The Facts of Life. But he’s also worked on some of the more influential dramas of the late 20th century, including thirtysomething and L.A. Law. In addition, Haggis was responsible for the critically beloved but short-lived EZ Streets, a dense, sprawling story of criminals, cops and politicians. In many ways, the series presaged some of the things that became commonplace on cable dramas like The Wire and The Sopranos, and The Black Donnellys feels like an attempt to redo EZ Streets at times, even if the script here is a bit more streamlined and less ambitious.
Donnellys tells the story of four brothers who are looking to make their name in the Irish mob in New York City. We’re introduced to the brothers in short order, and Haggis and Moresco attempt to introduce them so memorably that we’re able to tell all of them apart in short order. Unfortunately, the actors let them down. It takes a while to catch on to who’s who, simply because all the actors have a strong physical resemblance and because they’re all playing variations on the same character—the ambitious young man trying to get ahead. Jonathan Tucker, the de facto lead as Tommy Donnelly, the brother who tries to keep the other brothers in order, is the one who stands out the most, but the brothers have all done enough to differentiate themselves by the end of the episode.
The brothers aren’t the only characters in the show, of course. Olivia Wilde plays Jenny, the girl who’s always been one of the guys since they were kids. It’s a fairly stereotypical role, but Wilde, who hasn’t ever been this good before, fills it with a sort of longing that’s instantly identifiable. She manages to fill a simple request to share a sandwich with desire and, in her other scenes, she manages to ground some of the show’s more clichéd mob elements.
The other prominent character is Joey Ice Cream, played by Kevin Nobbs. Joey is the narrator of the tale, but he doesn’t always get the facts straight (Haggis and Moresco often use Joey’s narration to act as a humorous counterpoint to what’s going on onscreen, though a lot of these jokes are too easily predicted). His attempts to make the story reflect well upon him and his constant twisting of what really happened don’t really develop beyond a humorous tic, but it’s an interesting choice to have a semi-unreliable narrator when the many, many other television shows with narrators invite the audience to put its trust in those narrators to a fault. Would Desperate Housewives’ Mary Alice ever lie to us? What about J.D. on Scrubs or Meredith Grey on Grey’s Anatomy? Of course not. On most television shows with narrators, the narrator is a way to tie together numerous disparate elements, to make sure the audience isn’t lost. Haggis and Moresco, in their own fairly simplistic way, are suggesting that the truth of what really happens isn’t always so clear-cut, that we all rewrite the stories of our lives, even the ones we’re only tangentially involved in. This isn’t quite as daring as some of the more daring experiments with unreliable narrators in literature or film—this is hardly Rashomon or Pale Fire; for that matter, it’s hardly Huck Finn grossly misjudging everyone he comes into contact with. This is, of course, a network TV show where pulling the rug out from under the audience usually leads to a drop in ratings. But Haggis and Moresco, even if they’re just using the device to get some easy laughs, get points for simply playing with what’s already a tired TV convention.
I don’t want to overpraise The Black Donnellys. There’s a lot about it that will be immediately familiar to anyone who’s ever seen any of the works listed above. All of the characters are easily identified types—the pretty boy who gets all of the girls, the more intelligent brother who could have gotten out of the life alive, the sleazy cop. And some would say that Haggis (who never met a type he didn’t like—think of the redneck family in Million Dollar Baby or the carjackers in Crash) is just trafficking in cliches again here. But television may be the ideal medium for a writer like Haggis, who in EZ Streets proved that he could take those types and deepen them, show us what made them tick. Nothing in the pilot suggests that these particular people will reveal themselves as TV characters for the ages, but there’s also something primal to seeing this story, which we’ve seen before, play out all over again, this time with a strong soundtrack (though, word to the wise, many of the songs from the version I watched were changed for the broadcast version due to licensing issues) and a keenly roving camera. Plus, as the series goes on, the characters will have to add other dimensions, simply to keep the show from growing stale. The Black Donnellys is far from perfect, but it has enough promise to be worth keeping an eye on.
NBC’s track record with new dramas this season has been exceptionally good. The roster so far includes Friday Night Lights, Heroes, Kidnapped, Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip and The Black Donnellys, and all had things that made them worth watching for one reason or another. Only Heroes has grabbed a mass audience (though Donnellys has yet to debut, of course), but NBC is clearly using its bottom-dwelling ratings to aim at quality and hope for a breakthrough like ABC had in 2004 with Lost, Desperate Housewives and Grey’s Anatomy.
But that quality track record screeches to a halt with Raines, debuting Thursday, March 15 at 10 p.m. EST. Raines is the latest attempt by a network other than CBS to create a crime-solving procedural hit. While NBC has Law & Order, that franchise has grown long in the tooth. A procedural (a show where every episode tells a closed-off story) that repeats well is the Holy Grail of network programming—it can be rerun anywhere with minimal damage done. CBS and Fox don’t worry about canceling shows because they can always plug in a CSI or House respectively to balance out the overall ratings picture.
Raines, at least, is trying something different. It’s aiming at being a takeoff of hard-boiled detective stories (the sorts that spawned the early noir films). It has the LA setting, the eccentric crime solver and the twisty narrative down pat (and it should—it’s from Graham Yost, who created the loaded-with-potential Boomtown a few seasons ago). It’s even got a cool device where Raines solves the case by conjuring up visions of the victims and discussing the case with them. But he’s not literally talking to their ghosts, as is made clear when he learns new information about the victim and incorporates that into his “vision” of them. It’s an interestingly visual way to depict the way detectives puzzle out crimes from scraps of disparate information, and with a better show, it would make a great gimmick.
But the show here just isn’t hard-boiled enough. Jeff Goldblum’s mannered acting in the title role doesn’t serve the series well, and the show’s central ethos isn’t despairing enough to make the psuedo-noir elements pay off. For all the complaining there is to be done about CBS’ crime dramas (and there’s plenty), they all feel cut from the same cloth—to watch a week’s worth of CBS is to be thrust into a grim world where the only thing protecting us from a grim, Hobbesian state are small teams of dedicated forensic pathologists. It’s that worldview that makes the CBS shows attract their audience, and Raines just can’t quite bring itself to get dark enough. It tries too hard to be about how the central detective establishes a relationship with the victim or with his co-workers, and it relies too much on Goldblum’s hammy joke delivery. By the time Raines is creating simple little rhymes to accuse people of molesting their children, you’ll be ready to bail.
A couple of weeks ago, when reviewing The Knights of Prosperity, I complained that the show relied too much on pop culture references to create humor, when it might have been creating interesting and amusing characters to do the same. But Knights, which at least tries to create a semblance of a plot, has nothing on The Winner, the new Fox show debuting Sunday, March 4 at 8:30 p.m. EST. Starring Rob Corddry, late of The Daily Show, the series is the story of how a 34-year-old man still living in his parents’ house in 1994 turned into the hugely successful narrator who relates the tale to us in the present. In this regard, it’s sort of like CBS’ How I Met Your Mother, though that show has used its narration device to propose theories about destiny and dangle sitcom ideas about fatalism in front of us. The Winner just assures us that everything will turn out all right, so why don’t we sit back and have some laughs?
Unfortunately, the laughs come from one of two things: pop cultural references about 1994 (O.J. jokes get driven into the ground here) and watching Corddry’s character act like a child. The conceit is that the return of his childhood sweetheart (Erinn Hayes in the definition of a thankless role) prompts Glen (Corddry) to try to grow up. We’re supposed to be amused that the woman’s son (Keir Gilchrist) is at the same emotional age as Glen, but it mostly comes off as creepy as we watch both of them try to put the moves on their respective dates or respond to women with the same mortal terror. The series is from some of the producers of Family Guy, and the constant barrage of pop culture references rub this in even more if you weren’t aware. At least on Family Guy, a given reference may be a cutaway to something so obscure that it prompts a smile of recognition. Here, the broadest targets of the early 90s are dissected (again, O.J., though others come in for mockery as well).
The best thing The Winner has going for it is a game performance from Corddry. He tries hard to make even the lousiest jokes land, and he pushes some of them over the finish line through sheer force of will. Corddry was a good choice to play a man-boy, and he’s got an infectious enthusiasm that makes the half-hour more bearable than it really should be. But in a time when there are finally good comedies on television again, there’s really no reason to check out this mostly horrible one, just to see a mostly winning performance.
House Next Door contributor Todd VanDerWerff is the publisher of the pop culture blog South Dakota Dark.