The Black Donnellys



10-11 p.m., Monday, Feb. 26

Thank heaven for the Irish and the Italians. In these sensitive times, we'd have no crime stories without them. I should hasten to add that there also are law-abiding, upstanding, public-spirited Irish and Italians. Just don't try looking for them on NBC's "The Black Donnellys."

That in itself isn't what makes this a tough show to endorse. Far more bothersome are the Donnelly boys themselves. Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco (creators, writers and exec producers) ask us to invest time and emotion in characters that often are so obnoxious and self-centered that we can only wish, at times, that they get their comeuppance, either from the law or neighborhood rivals. Maybe this show would be more compelling if the Donnellys were a little less black and a little more gray.

The saving grace is that Haggis and Moresco are nothing if not superior storytellers. Watching the first five episodes sent for review, you have to marvel at how seeds planted in an early episode blossom into complicated and absorbing tales in a later show. It is well-cast, too. If only those characters weren't so off-putting.

"Donnellys" is loosely based on people Moresco knew growing up in the Hell's Kitchen area of Manhattan. The first brother is Tommy (Jonathan Tucker), a bright, bold and quick-witted fellow as well as a budding artist. After that, the quality of the genetic material drops precipitously. Jimmy (Thomas Guiry) is a hotheaded drug addict. Kevin (Billy Lush), always on the wrong side of a bet, goes whichever way he's pushed. And Sean (Michael Stahl-David) is a handsome airhead.

The stories of their schemes and close calls are narrated with a touch of humor and bravado by jail inmate Joey Ice Cream (Keith Nobbs), a Damon Runyon-type character who grew up alongside the Donnellys and wishes he could be one of them. Olivia Wilde plays sweet Jenny Reilly, who operates a cafe with her father and has feelings for Tommy, perhaps by process of elimination.

The pilot episode puts the spotlight on Tommy. If he is to keep his brothers from the fatal consequences of their idiotic shenanigans, he is going to have to assert himself as the head of the fraternal gang. Unfortunately, once he makes that decision, the drama of his moral quandary between family ties and larger personal ambitions largely evaporates. Henceforth, he will be one of them, albeit smarter.

Haggis, who directed, instills the show with a gritty, urban feel. Production design serves up constant reminders of the working-class neighborhood. The series, originally planned to relieve "ER," will instead replace "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip." The ratings for "Studio 60" failed to reflect the show's quality, but substituting "The Black Donnellys" may not improve things for NBC.

Blackfriars Bridge Films in association with NBC Universal Television Studio
Executive producers/creators/teleplay: Paul Haggis, Bobby Moresco
Co-executive producer: Mark R. Harris
Supervising producer: Jeff F. King
Producer: Jim Chory
Director: Paul Haggis
Director of photography: J. Michael Muro
Production designer: Rick Butler
Editor: Jo Francis
Music: Mark Isham
Set designer: Mila Khalevich
Casting: Alexa L. Fogel
Tommy Donnelly: Jonathan Tucker
Jimmy Donnelly: Thomas Guiry
Kevin Donnelly: Billy Lush
Sean Donnelly: Michael Stahl-David
Jenny Reilly: Olivia Wilde
Joey Ice Cream: Keith Nobbs
Nicky Cottero: Kirk Acevedo