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NBC rallies behind Reilly’s risks

'Donellys' embodies exec's offbeat tastes

Just when Paul Haggis thought he was out of the TV business, NBC Entertainment president Kevin Reilly pulled him back in.

The result is “The Black Donnellys,” an Irish mob drama Haggis and his “Crash” collaborator Bobby Moresco penned nearly a decade ago. The show had been rejected by CBS, but Reilly resurrected it in late 2005, cast it with a slew of baby-faced unknowns and is now praying it will turn into a much-needed midseason hit.

He’s even giving the show the best timeslot on the Peacock: Mondays at 10 p.m. after frosh hit “Heroes” (and in place of the barely breathing “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip”.)

Because Reilly has found his footing at NBC — he’s talking to the net about a new deal — the fate of “Donnellys” won’t determine his future. It does, however, say a lot about what kind of exec he is and the type of network he wants NBC to be.

“This is the perfect Kevin Reilly show,” says one person who knows the Peacock prexy well. “It’s very well-done, but it’s also dark, challenging, male-skewing and looks like it could be on cable.”

In other words, “Donnellys” is the type of TV show that would send a lot of other network execs running. It doesn’t help that while “The Sopranos” worked for HBO, mob dramas, including Haggis’ own “EZ Streets,” have consistently failed to click with broadcast auds.

Reilly, however, has shown a penchant for rolling the dice on risky fare, from “The Shield” to “The Office.” He seems unconcerned that the odds seem stacked against “Donnellys.”

“Prior to ‘Cheers,’ there was a rule that you never set something in a bar,” Reilly says. “At the end of the day, you just have to bet on the quality of the work and the talent involved.”

Of course, it’s easier to gamble when you’ve got little to lose. When Reilly became interested in “Donnellys,” he was barely a year into his job as entertainment prexy and was staring up from the bottom of what appeared to be a bottomless Nielsen abyss.

Reilly figured one way to climb out of that hole was to break out of the usual development cycle. Soon after he got to the network, he let the town know he was looking for scripts and ideas year-round.

One day in late 2005, reps for Haggis contacted Reilly and told him about an old script, then titled “The Truth About Joey Ice Cream.”

“We sent it to him on a Friday, and by Sunday, he called us and said, ‘Can we do this?’ ” recalls Haggis, whose previous television work included “Due South” and “Family Law” for CBS. “I never thought anyone in network TV would buy this thing. I thought it was a cable show.”

Moresco, whose childhood inspired many of the characters and plots on “Donnellys,” says, “Kevin is a throwback to a time when people weren’t afraid to make decisions. He trusts his creative partners.”

Reilly suggested a change in title and asked the scribes to give it a contemporary setting (rather than 1970s), and make the lead characters several years younger.

“Conceptually, making the characters younger sets it apart (from past mob dramas),” Reilly said. He admits there was another reason: “It makes them more appealing and cute. It doesn’t hurt to have cute guys in a show.”

Haggis and Moresco turned in the pilot in March 2006. Normally, a net would wait until May before deciding whether to pick up the show to series. Reilly ordered 13 episodes, virtually on the spot. He even brought out Haggis and Moresco to hype the show at a pre-upfront confab in Los Angeles last March.

Reilly opted against putting “Donnellys” on NBC’s fall 2006 sked. Some saw this as a sign that “Donnellys” didn’t have enough internal support from Reilly’s bosses, or that advertisers were concerned with some of the show’s darker themes.

Reilly says neither was true.

“Because of its nature, I felt the show needed some support,” Reilly says. “It’s not a down-the-middle concept like a good lawyer putting bad guys behind bars. And I didn’t think we had the right place to program it.”

Exec’s first plan was to air it in “ER’s” timeslot when the show went on temporary hiatus this winter. But then “ER” got off to a surprisingly strong start in the fall.A better timeslot opened up after it became clear that “Heroes” was a hit and “Studio 60” was not.

Reilly doesn’t expect “Donnellys” to be an out-of-the-gate blockbuster, and he knows it’ll be tough for a gritty crime drama to hold on to the huge aud tuning in for the mass appeal of the comicbook fantasy that is “Heroes.”

“But the bar to trade up (over ‘Studio 60’) isn’t that high,” Reilly says. “And relative to the competition, it’s about as good a slot as we can give it.”

As for whether “Donnellys” stands as the quintessential Kevin Reilly show, the exec says that’s a no-brainer.

“If it’s a big hit, yes,” he laughs.

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