The Black Donnellys is likely going to be a series that rewards patient viewers. The show, which premieres at 10 p.m. ET Monday, Feb. 26, doesn’t exactly reach through the screen and pin you to your seat, but over the course of its first few episodes reveals a nicely textured portrait of four brothers who, despite all good intentions and because of their deep loyalty to each other, are drawn into organized crime.
The series was created by Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, who co-wrote last year’s Oscar winner Crash and also worked on the late, lamented EZ Streets a decade ago. There are a few echoes of that show in The Black Donnellys, mostly in the brothers’ struggle to remain good people while doing bad things.
At the center of things is Tommy Donnelly (Jonathan Tucker), the second-oldest and most responsible of the brothers. While his older brother Jimmy (Thomas Guiry) runs a bar and dabbles in petty crime and younger brothers Kevin (Billy Lush) and Sean (Michael Stahl-David) tend to go along with whatever Jimmy’s up to, Tommy is the family fixer, bailing his brothers out whenever they get into trouble, which is frequently.
The brothers get in over their head when Jimmy and Kevin, who’s deep in the hole to a bookie, kidnap the guy and hold him for ransom to pay off the debt, inadvertently stepping into the middle of an uneasy detente between Irish and Italian gangsters. When Sean gets beaten up, Jimmy flies off the handle and shoots the bookie, and just like that we’re at the edge of a gang war, with the Donnellys stuck in the middle.
At least, that’s the way it seems. All the events above are narrated by the Donnellys’ boyhood friend, Joey Ice Cream (Keith Nobbs, who gives a lively and occasionally quite funny performance). Joey’s in jail on a charge of — well, we’re not sure what, exactly. But the cops are pressing him to give up his friends, and he’s trying to lie his way around giving them up. You accept that maybe most of what he’s saying is true, but there are ample hints that Joey is not the most reliable narrator.
It’s an interesting device, and the fact that you’re never entirely sure if Joey’s telling the absolute truth adds a bit of pop to the series. Haggis and Moresco also hint at higher stakes among the two gangs in later episodes, which may explain why the police are so interested in Joey’s story.
Because at the start, it hardly seems like the Donnellys are worth that much effort. They’re new at this crime thing, and not always very good at it. Their false starts lighten up the sometimes very somber proceedings, which also include a tortured romance between Tommy and his childhood sweetheart, Jenny Reilly (The O.C.‘s Olivia Wilde, who’s probably the most recognizable face in the young cast).
Even with his love for Jenny, though, it’s clear that Tommy’s loyalty to his family takes precedence over everything else. Tucker does a fine slow burn as a guy who finds himself in circumstances he’d hoped to escape, and he seems more than capable of carrying off his central role.
The Black Donnellys will inevitably suffer some in comparison to the current standard-bearer of mob dramas, The Sopranos — but pretty much any show would. Haggis and Moresco are in some ways telling a smaller story here, the crime show as coming-of-age tale. They do it pretty well, too. Here’s hoping their latest effort gets a little longer shelf life than EZ Streets did.