An old adage cautions that every successful filmmaker has a highly personal dud in them, just yearning for the industry clout to set it free. Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco enjoyed precisely such leverage after their Oscar-winning “Crash,” and the result is this grim, brooding, utterly muddled crime series, which travels the same littered, dangerous roads — with considerably less panache — as an earlier Haggis offering that squandered CBS’ time and resources, “EZ Streets.” NBC might fare better with “Heroes” as a lead-in, but it will take true heroics to win “The Black Donnellys” an extended reprieve from an Irish wake.
Told in not-always-to-be-trusted flashback by the incarcerated Joey Ice Cream (Keith Nobbs), the mishmash of a story involves the four Donnelly brothers, who, if this were “The Godfather,” would amount to three Fredos and one Michael. With so many Jimmys and Tommys and Joeys and Jennys running around, it’s about three-quarters of the way through the premiere before anybody can tell them apart, which might be just as well.
A ne’er-do-well New York clan that oversees a local bar, the Donnellys are petty thieves with the exception of Tommy (Jonathan Tucker), who yearns to be an artist and pines quietly for neighborhood girl Jenny (Olivia Wilde), who’s married to a guy who disappeared and is thus unavailable. Tommy has to look out for his hot-tempered brother Jimmy (Thomas Guiry), simple-minded Kevin (Billy Lush) and ladies man Sean (Michael Stahl-David), even if that means figuring out what to do with a stolen truck or a kidnapped Italian bookmaker.
Jimmy nurses a bum leg from his youth, so he’s perhaps to be forgiven for being a twitchy drunk. Still, as constructed by Haggis and Moresco (who claims similar neighborhood roots), Tommy is the only brother who isn’t a low-grade moron, and as a bonus — returning to a “Godfather” analogy that’s too good for this show — his hand doesn’t shake in moments of crisis.
Without giving away too much about the serialized five episodes previewed, circumstances risk bringing the wrath of both the Italian and Irish mobsters that occupy the ‘hood down on the Donnellys, forcing Tommy to intervene. This strains his long-simmering itch for Jenny and yields lots of prolonged, anguished looks.
“Star Trek: Voyager’s” Kate Mulgrew eventually turns up as the boys’ mother, without much to do, while the lingering threat of mob violence produces occasional moments of tension (one psychopath struts around with an ax) but precious little that’s on a level with the worst episode of “The Sopranos.”
None of the characters really pop beyond the halo-encircled Tommy, and even as antiheroes, the brothers aren’t particularly likable. More problematic, there’s no sense of the stakes or where this is ultimately heading, as each episode opens pretentiously with an onscreen quote and then segues to Joey’s hyperactive narration.
“Studio 60” didn’t set the ratings standard especially high in this Monday timeslot, but after the curiosity evoked by this new pilot’s ending is quenched in the second episode, it isn’t a stretch to foresee the “Donnellys” limbo-ing under that bar. Indeed, at various points, it’s easy to hope Tommy will think of himself and let Darwinian principles run their course, prompting a title change to “The Lonely Donnelly.” As is, it’s a dreary stroll along the seedy side, where a woman who crosses the brothers’ path can only ask, “What kind of people are you?”
They’re the Black Donnellys, dammit. Hear them mumble.