Stream On: Gone too soon—‘The Black Donnellys.’ What were they thinking?

By on September 7, 2023

In 2007, screenwriter, film producer, and director Paul Haggis (Million Dollar Baby, Crash, Flags of Our Fathers, Casino Royale) and screenwriter Robert Moresco (Crash) created The Black Donnellys for NBC. In spite of great storytelling, writing, and acting, it was cancelled after seven episodes. The additional six episodes that comprised season one were made available on the NBC website and iTunes. After an online petition was circulated, gaining 33,000 signatures, the show was picked up by HDNet and is now available to stream—what there is of it.


/Amazon /Streaming /🍅40%🍟100% /Trailer /2007 /TV14

“God is a comedian playing to an audience afraid to laugh” (attributed to Voltaire)

Critics really didn’t like this series; they suddenly seemed to be looking for High Art (on NBC, no less!). The professional scribes bemoaned its lack of originality, saying they’d seen the storylines before. Well, the Computational Story Lab at the University of Vermont in Burlington used sentiment analysis—or analysis of emotion in a string of words—to map the plot of over 1,700 works of fiction … and found that all of fiction used a variation on one of six plots.

I myself spotted a familiar concept, used in Martin Scorsese’s Mean Streets. In it, Charlie Cappa is torn between his devout Catholicism and his illicit Mafia work. His cousin Johnny becomes increasingly self-destructive and disrespectful of his Mafia-connected creditors; and, failing to receive redemption in the Church, Charlie seeks it through sacrificing himself on Johnny’s behalf. But I’ve seen the same trope in Dostoevsky’s The Idiot and elsewhere. In The Black Donnellys it’s dressed up with good storytelling, compelling characters and interesting details, and it’s just a great watch.

The Donnelly brothers are Tommy, Jimmy, Kevin and Sean. There is nothing these four Irish brothers wouldn’t do to protect one another, and for them that means lying, cheating, stealing and, occasionally, calling the cops. The pilot describes the brothers’ sudden involvement in organized crime in New York’s “Hell’s Kitchen” neighborhood, focusing on how they go from boys to mobsters.

Tommy (Jonathan Tucker, Justified, Snowfall) is the artist, who wants no part of “the life,” but his brother Jimmy (Tom Guiry) is a wild one; these two remind me of Charlie and Johnny in Mean Streets. A flashback to their childhood shows a car careening through their neighborhood apparently towards Tommy, but at the last moment it swerves and instead runs over Jimmy’s leg—he had been sitting on the curb. I say apparently, because the show is narrated by a family friend, Joey “Ice Cream” (Keith Nobbs, The Pacific), a low-level hood who, in an orange jumpsuit, is being questioned in jail by detectives investigating the Donnellys. He’s the Scheherazade of the show, telling tales to postpone punishment; his unreliable narrating is a fine complication to the narrative.

So, as Joey Ice Cream tells it, Tommy feels guilty about Jimmy’s leg: the injury stunted Jimmy’s growth and left him with a permanent limp. And maybe contributed to an apparent Napoleon complex which repeatedly lands Jimmy—and his brothers—in trouble. Tommy has to intercede when one of Jimmy’s stunts puts the brothers in mortal danger, and this results in Tommy becoming the de facto leader of the local Irish mob, and the target of the local Italian mob, while he would rather draw and paint, and court Jenny Reilly (Olivia Wilde, House, M.D.), whose father owns a diner.

The characters are fully fleshed out; we’re shown how they’ve developed since childhood, and what they want and believe in. And Joey Ice Cream’s stories often receive further embellishment during the telling, often changing the meaning of what (he says) happened.

The episodes are introduced with literary quotes, like the Voltaire attribution above, an example of the fine detailing that makes the show entertaining from beginning to end. Which brings up the end—it’s possible that the final episode closes the loop of the Donnellys’ story, but also possible that the writers had another season in mind. Then there’s the story of the historical “Black Donnellys,” that Paul Haggis was inspired by—but what exactly was the inspiration?

The Black Donnellys debuted on NBC on February 26, 2007. The series’ initial half hour did well (10 million) but viewership fell off significantly in the second half hour (6 million). Subsequent episodes lost viewers and attracted as few as 5.5 million. I don’t get it: the pilot hooked me and I found the show compelling all the way through. Since 2007 the show has gathered 196 out of 222 positive user reviews on MetaCritic, and 100% audience score on Rotten Tomatoes. I don’t know what was going on in 2007…

(Pete Hummers is a participant in the Amazon Services LLC Associates Program, an affiliate advertising program designed to earn fees by linking Amazon.com and affiliate sites. This adds nothing to Amazon’s prices.)

Click here for more Stream On: What to watch on TV columns by Pete Hummers. Columns are archived and updated when necessary on Substack.


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