The Black Donnellys reviewed.

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Feb. 27 2007 4:53 PM

The Black Donnellys

Television doesn't get more Irish than this.

The Black Donnellys. Click image to expand.
The Black Donnellys

Taking the gun and leaving the cannoli, the Irish-American gangster is enjoying a moment in the pop-culture sun and the film-noir shadows. The Departed—Martin Scorsese's spiritual update, by way of Hong Kong, of James Cagney's Angels With Dirty Faces—has its Oscar. Brotherhood—the Showtime series about a Rhode Island politician and his mobbed-up kin—will be back later this year, presumably to retail its dark and overheated crypto-fantasy about the Kennedy family. And now we have The Black Donnellys (NBC), which premiered last night. The next four episodes are nowhere near as patient and controlled as that cinematic pilot, but, man, are they Irish: the wakes, the neon shamrock, the epigraphs from W.B. Yeats and D.P. Moynihan. And the show keeps this magnificent blarney up even as it swipes half its ideas from the playbooks of Scorsese and The Godfather.

So, the Donnelly boys: As explained by one charismatic little weasel of a narrative device named Joey Ice Cream, there are four of them. Kevin is the problem gambler with the sensitive eyes and a touch of Fredo Corleone. Little Sean is the ladies' man with the sensitive eyes and a touch of Fredo Corleone. Jimmy is the hophead, the hothead, the loose canon; there's some Fredo to him and some Sonny, too, but he's mostly a store-brand version of Johnny Boy from Mean Streets. Then there's Tommy, limned by Jonathan Tucker in a performance that is all darts of the eyes, ducks of the chin, and menacing baby steps. In essence, it's a complete De Niro pantomime kept fresh by Tucker's sunken cheeks.

As Joey said last night, "Tommy had a knack for two things, drawing and getting his brothers out of trouble. What he didn't seem to understand is that he'd never go anywhere with the first if he couldn't let go out of the second." Tommy thought he was out—in the pilot, they pulled him back in.

"They" is the Italians and also family loyalty. Kevin and Jimmy kidnapped a bookie whose uncle ran the local Mafia franchise. In recompense, pretty boy Sean got his face split open in a beat down. Tommy intuited that the only way to keep Jimmy alive was to off the bosses of both the Irish and Italian mobs, which created a whole new set of hassles. The show is highly erratic, veering from the comedic to the grotesque to the poignant to the overwrought—and that's just the upcoming scene where Tommy and Kevin try to dispose of a body. Jimmy is one of the more inconsistent characters ever to make it to air; they keep telling us he's junkie, and we keep not believing them. I'm not even going to get into Tommy's romance with Jenny Riley. Still, there are some fine fraternal moments here, and some moral force, and a good slow-motion pummeling.

The show is supposedly set in contemporary New York, but it's not until the fourth hour that we see either cell phones or minorities. For ethnic contrast, we get a smattering of extraordinarily entitled WASPs. Meanwhile, the Irish call the Italians guineas, and the Italians call the Irish micks, and the neon shamrock looks quite handsome reflected in the barroom floor.

Troy Patterson is Slate's writer at large and writes the Gentleman Scholar column.