Thursday, March 08, 2007

Is This The Medium For This Message?

Monday night I wasn't feeling well. Actually I was feeling like crap, spelled with and "s" and a "t", so with great reluctance I decided not to go bowling. So what do you do when you're too sick to really do much of anything. Well being a good child of TV it decided to veg out in front of the Tube and be entertained. Well strictly speaking I fell asleep in front of the TV and woke up part way through Heroes. I did however watch the second episode of The Black Donnellys.

Maybe it's because I wasn't feeling good or maybe just because I hadn't seen the first episode, but the truth is I wasn't impressed.
The series focuses on the four Donnelly brothers - Jimmy, Kevin, Sean and Tommy - and Jenny Reilly, who is described as being "attached at the hip." The story is told by "Joey Ice Cream" an associate of the Donnellys who, while he isn't a major character in the show may be one of the most interesting parts of the concept. The Donnelly brothers are, to use an extremely appropriate British expression, "bent." Even Tommy Donnelly (Jonathon Tucker), the family's only honest man, is really only honest in relative to his brothers. Tommy believes he owes a debt to his brother Jimmy (Tom Guiry) who was crippled in a childhood accident that Tommy caused and which led Jimmy into drug addiction. Things are set in motion when Jimmy kidnaps and then kills Louis, his brother Kevin's (Billy Lush) bookie. The trouble is that Louis is the nephew of Sal the head of the local Italian mob. The Italians pay a ransom Things escalated further out of control when youngest brother Sean was nearly beaten to death by the local Italian mob, and the deal that Huey, local Irish mob fixer negotiates means that Jimmy will be killed. Tommy came up with a "brilliant" plan that included killing both the Italian and Irish bosses, and getting his brother Jimmy arrested so that he can get rehab for his drug problem.

That much I figured out about the first episode from watching the second. For me the second episode was a problem. It involves cleaning up the mess that the events of the previous day had left. Tommy Kevin had to replace the clothes they were wearing when they killed Sal Huey which meant some shoplifting (aluminum foil - who knew!) but the biggest mess was the body of Louis the Bookie which Jimmy "hid" in the dumpster behind the bar he owns. The need a place to dump the body and it's sort of a dark comedy of errors (the Jersey swamp where Kevin suggests dumping it has been turned into a shopping mall) but at least half of the episode's 57 minutes (with commercials) is given over to getting rid of the body. I thought it was a bit too much. But then I was sick at the time so maybe my patience with the episode was less than it could have been.

I mentioned earlier that one of the most interesting concepts in the show might be the use of "Joey Ice Cream" as the narrator. Joey, played by Kevin Nobbs, is telling the story of the Donnelly Brothers while he is in jail - to two cops in the first episode, to his lawyer in the second. While there are other shows that use narrators to tell their stories, they are for the most part both omniscient and trustworthy. Mary Alice Young (and in the most recent episode Rex Van De Kamp) on Desperate Housewives and Meredith on Grey's Anatomy come to mind. "Joey Ice Cream" isn't trustworthy which leads us to question whether he's actually omniscient. We know that he inserts himself into the story to elevate his status. At various times he tells us that the Donnelly's don't make a move without him, but we know that he inserts himself into scenes where he wasn't originally present. On at least two occasions in the second episode when his lawyer asks how he knows certain things he says that he was there, which comes as a surprise to the characters in the story he's narrating. Which of course leads to a question of trust. If we can't believe that Joey witnessed these events how can we be sure that they actually happened or that they happened in exactly the way that Joey says they did. How much of the story that Joey is telling is real and how much of it is fiction?

The Black Donnellys
has a lot of the things that a show needs to have to succeed. The performance from Tucker and Lush, who were the two main characters that we saw were quite strong, and many of the lesser characters were well acted as well. Of particular interest was Kate Mulgrew as the flinty matriarch of the Donnelly family. She didn't have many lines but her actions - as when she adjusted Kevin's jacket to hide a blood stain indicated that she knew her boys had done something bad but she was standing behind them without question. The writing was also quite good in that for the most part we believe in the characters and the character who we are least able to accept is the one who by definition we aren't supposed to find acceptable, "Joey Ice Cream."

Still, on the whole the thing doesn't work, at least not on network television. And it's not as if the show's creator, Paul Haggis, doesn't know how to do network TV. Before he wrote Crash and entered a creative relationship with Clint Eastwood that created things like Million Dollar Baby and Letters from Iwo Jima he did a lot of TV including thirtysomething, Family Law, Due South, and even Facts of Life. He's even credited with creating Walker, Texas Ranger. But The Black Donnellys doesn't work. For one thing it's continuity-heavy in a television environment that right now at least doesn't have much patience with continuity-heavy television. For another thing I'm not entirely certain that the show works well with the commercial interruptions that are a requisite of TV's "big tent". The biggest thing though is that for me at least there was always the feeling that "real" small time Irish hoods - and their Italian counterparts for that matter - would be using language that is far stronger than what the FCC will allow to assault the pristine ears, let alone show scenes of sex and (in particular for a show like this) violence that a network executive wouldn't allow on the air even if the FCC didn't exist. I think that The Black Donnellys would be earning far more acclaim (not to mention higher ratings) if it were allow to show what these people would be like on one of the higher end cable stations. Because as it stands I don't think the show works and most of the problems could be solved if the show weren't restricted by laws and network presidents.

But then again I had a raging headache that got progressively worse on Monday night, so what do I know?

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