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Fifty years ago, they were screwed-up kids sent to the Florida School for Boys to be straightened out. But now they are screwed-up men, scarred by the whippings they endured. Read the story and see a video and portrait gallery.
The Black Donnellys gets its shot starting tonight, but don't count on success.
By ERIC DEGGANS
Published February 26, 2007
Can an Irish crime drama work where showbiz-centered comedy failed?
That's the question hanging now, as NBC executes a mid-season Hail Mary by booting the sagging Studio 60 off Monday nights for Paul Haggis' new series, The Black Donnellys.
Some have already written early obituaries for Studio 60, the highly anticipated dramedy from West Wing mastermind Aaron Sorkin, which hits the bench starting tonight in favor of Donnellys.
Coming from Oscar-winning screenwriters Haggis and Bobby Moresco Crash, Million Dollar Baby, Donnellys' gritty tale of crime and neighborhood shenanigans in New York City hits just as The Departed turns heads at the Oscars with a similar story and TV casts about for a non-Idol fueled success.
But wait just a minute.
This critic is willing to make a risky prediction: The Black Donnellys will suffer the same fate as Studio 60 in a shorter time, because of what Sorkin's failure has taught us about what works on TV these days.
Lesson 1: Audiences must find TV characters compelling.
Yeah, it sounds like TV 101. But even a pro like Sorkin had a tough time making us care about the self-centered network executives, high-strung performers and snarky producers who strutted round Studio 60 like making a late-night TV show was comparable to, well, running the free world.
In Donnellys, we have a crew of no-name actors playing Irish brothers caught between Italian and Irish mobsters when one of them - a hotheaded, hard-drinking bar owner, no stereotype there - kidnaps the nephew of a major Italian mob boss for ransom. Oh yeah, and the story is told from the viewpoint of a local sleaze who pals around with the family; now that's entertainment.
Lesson 2: A good pilot doesn't guarantee a good series.
Studio 60 was one of the best pilot episodes of the season - a crackling mix of smart dialogue, interesting people and intriguing situations. Five months later, the few viewers who remain have been mired in two painfully awkward romances and the backstage drama at a late night show that isn't even as funny as Saturday Night Live.
Critics have seen five Donnellys episodes so far, and they all have the same mix of strengths and weaknesses; intricate plots with a nice mix of street violence and romance on the plus side, generic characters and situations snagged from a thousand past gangster movies on the negative. Top it with a narrator who sounds like he's doing a bad James Cagney impression every week and you have a very questionable enterprise indeed.
Lesson 3: Audience flow counts.
Fans of Two and Half Men also like CSI: Miami, so CBS rules Monday nights. But the comic book geeks who have made NBC's Heroes the surprise hit of the season haven't stuck around for a talky drama about show business.
Now it's Donnellys turn to try wooing the crowd that made "Save the Cheerleader, Save the World" their personal mantra. Can the story of good guy Irish art student slowly sucked into a world of crime by his knuckleheaded brothers hold onto an audience used to seeing people fly and walk through walls?
I'm not betting on it. But I'm the guy who thought Studio 60 would be a hit in the first place.
Eric Deggans can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8521. See his blog at blogs.tampabay.com/media.
The Black Donnellys
Premieres tonight at 10 on WFLA-Ch. 8.
Tonight's episode also will air on USA Network at midnight March 6; the first two episodes will also air back-to-back on Bravo, at 4 p.m. March 11.