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Shoot Me, I'm Irish

You can measure NBC's desperation to escape the stink of pure crazy rising off the once-promising Studio 60 by the frequency with which they've promoted the show that's stepping into its time slot, The Black Donnellys. If you spent even a single half hour of the past few months watching NBC in primetime, chances are you caught one of the network's ads for the series, begging you with all the subtle delicacy of a sledgehammer blow to watch "the next great NBC drama." (The NBC Promotions Department: There's Nothing We Can't Oversell!) Or, more accurately, the next next great NBC drama, seeing how the last next great NBC drama is busy imploding under the weight of Aaron Sorkin's ego.

Paul Haggis was responsible for two of my all-time favorite TV shows, Due South and the criminally underseen EZ Streets, both of which combined offbeat humor and stark drama with deceptively complex characters. If the pilot's any judge, Donnellys, from Haggis and his Crash cohort Bobby Moresco, is at best half as good as either of those series, and just promising enough to disappoint.

It's got a brief, brash, lovely title sequence with a stylishness too rarely seen on TV, and at times, the same haunted, lonely middle-of-the-night feeling that distinguished South and especially Streets. And the pilot makes mostly amusing use of its unreliable narrator, pausing, altering, or even rewinding the events onscreen -- even if the gimmickry involved feels at odds with the grimmer subject matter. Lead Jonathan Tucker's got the charisma to carry a series -- maybe not this series, but a series -- and designated love interest Olivia Wilde gives a surprisingly strong performance, even if her preternatural good looks seem completely out of place in the show's working-class world.

Alas, these advantages are utterly wasted by a pilot that suggests Haggis and Moresco got a 12-pack of Guinness and a couple of Pogues albums, put on a DVD of Goodfellas, and started taking notes. Especially in EZ Streets, Haggis demonstrated a knack for pitting two characters of equal sympathy against one another, and wringing nail-biting suspense out of the moral choices each faced. (See for yourself, courtesy of BrilliantButCancelled.com.) Here, alas, we get nothing so nuanced. The Black Donnellys, at least in its pilot, is a show about hateful idiots doing stupid, destructive things for absolutely no reason we can fathom.

Even at the hour's end, I could barely tell the four leading brothers apart, except maybe that one was the good one, one was the inexplicable chick magnet, one was the compulsive gambler, and one was the crippled, short-tempered, violence-prone criminal heroin addict. (Overdoing it much?) These character traits, by the way, are all helpfully dictated to us by the narrator, in case we might happen to be blind, deaf, mentally incapacitated, or watching an entirely different series at the time. All of these knuckleheads do dumb, illegal things on a fairly constant basis, with their only apparent motivation being that they're Irish, they live in New York City, and they've probably been drinking. When your main characters' defining -- heck, only -- characteristics could fill a Post-it note with room left over for an entire grocery list, you're already in trouble.

But wait! The stereotypes don't stop there! We've got the grizzled old Italian mob boss! His sleek, sharkish enforcer, eager to fit the old ways with cement shoes and make with the bloodshed! The weaselly snitch who wishes he were one of the guys! And while Haggis's previous shows reveled in turning such TV stereotypes on their heads, all of these guys behave exactly like you expect them to, which pretty much kills any suspense from the get-go.

When the ostensibly likeable lead character commits a repugnant and frankly stupid act at episode's end, it doesn't feel so much tragic as inevitable, and we don't feel an ounce of sympathy for him before, during, or after. And when the lovely girl-next-door tells our hero "I love you" and "I'm a married woman, so nothing can ever happen between us" in the same breath, we're left insulted by the unlikelihood of that statement and baffled as to why she'd say so in the first place.

I judged Heroes too harshly, based on its awful pilot, so I'm willing to stick around and give Donnellys a few weeks to change my mind. I like the overall stylishness of the series, and the small, human details it slips in around the edges of its paint-by-numbers storyline. (Plus? Wilde is admittedly easy on the eyes.) But right now, I'm not seeing "the next great NBC drama" so much as "Oscar winners half-assedly slumming for easy paychecks." If I wanted to see a weekly hour of thoroughly unlikeable people making incredibly dumb decisions, I'd watch reality TV. Or, you know, Studio 60.


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