"Every crime-family drama from now through the turn of the next century is going to be compared unfavorably with The Sopranos, so let’s just stipulate: The Black Donnellys (10 p.m. Mondays, WTHR 13) is not as good as The Sopranos. Not as psychologically deep or chilling and certainly not as brutal (though it tries).
But here’s the thing: The Black Donnellys is good. Very, very good. NBC sent the first five episodes of this series by Crash masterminds Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco and, 30 minutes into episode one, after figuring out who everyone was, I couldn’t wait to see what was coming next. There were no serious disappointments — except that the bar they run never has any customers, which left me wondering how they afford the rent. Tony Soprano would never let that happen at the Bada Bing.
But anyway … this series follows the four extremely close, low-level-thug Donnelly brothers, who grew up on the periphery of the Irish mob in New York. When one brother incurs too many gambling debts, he kidnaps his bookie, who’s connected to the Italian mob. That sets off a chain of events that creates ever-widening mayhem in their neighborhood. In short order, there are beatings, multiple murders, gang war and corruption of the seemingly innocent as the brothers fight both for a place in the underworld hierarchy and to keep from becoming casualties of what they started.
Telling their stories is small-time hood and family friend Joey Ice Cream (Keith Nobbs), who’s such a habitual liar that, well, you’re never quite sure if what he’s saying is true. That could end up being a key plot device in later episodes, though it’s only used sparingly in the first five.
Nobbs’ character turns out to be a bit of comic relief in a sea of grimness. But Nobbs himself is just one in a stellar cast that includes Thomas Guiry as the drug-addicted, crazy Jimmy Donnelly, baby-faced Jonathan Tucker as art-school student Tommy Donnelly, the only brother with brains, and Billy Lush as dim, degenerate gambler Kevin Donnelly. (Michael Stahl-David plays the fourth brother, Sean.)
You’ll also see great performances by Olivia Wilde as Jenny Reilly, Tommy’s would-be love interest; Kate Mulgrew as the tough matriarch of the Donnelly clan, Kirk Acevedo as Italian mobster Nicky Cottero and Kevin Conway, who plays Jenny’s father.
From the acting to the writing, The Black Donnellys is superior television. I didn’t have to watch five episodes to write this review. I wanted to watch them.