The Replacements Come to Monday Nights

Black DonnellysI’m writing here about a television series I have never seen, but intend to, as my schedule allows. It’s a replacement series – your garden variety mid-season fare – except that two critics I respect had completely opposite initial reactions. And that suddenly got me interested in a network series I might otherwise have ignored (and still may).

The show is The Black Donnellys and the critics are Lance Mannion and Jason Chervokas – or, ahem, newcritics is more accurate. Lance only gave it 15 minutes and flicked his remote control to visit other lands; he didn’t like it much. Jason led his post with one word: “Wow!” Why all the fuss?

I can understand Mannion’s thumbs down: after all, the Black Donnellys replaces a staple over on Lance’s blog – the weekly gathering of the clans to pan and praise Studio 60, Aaron Sorkin’s unfunny series about an unfunny late-night comedy series. Oh, the joy we had panning that dreck (I was an occasional drop-in) – see, it was aimed oh-so-carefully at a mid-life demographic of consumers who enjoy a semi-literate weekly drama series chock-a-block with witty banter – ie, the old West Wing crowd.

That this new series was filmed in a soundstage just across the Warner Brothers lot where they filmed West Wing and employed the arch talents of the arch Bradley Whitford (the former Josh Lyman) was all part of the research. The irony is that the new production is produced by Paul Haggis, who gave us thirtysomething back in the day – the ultimate white-bread upscale banter bonanza.

To put it succinctly, Mannion (being Irish) didn’t like the Irish stereotypes and quotes the narrator with evident distaste: “The Irish are often stereotyped as drunks who like to get into fights. This is so unfair it makes you so mad that sometimes you just got to get drunk and punch somebody.” Says Lance:

Note to Paul Haggis, Oscar winning director intent on ruining his reputation by producing a TV show so cliched and hackneyed it will make his Walker Texas Ranger days seem like a time of ferocious artistic integrity:

You are not excused for indulging in an ethnic stereotype just because you’ve acknowledged you’re indulging in an ethnic stereotype.

Chervokas, on the other hand, loved it – indeed, was quite taken with both style and ubject matter.

I’m normally not one to worry about including spoilers–if you can’t write about what happens in a show, it’s hard to make any points. But the story unfolds is so graceful and surprising that my lips are sealed. It’s breath-taking stuff. If you can’t get the show on YouTube in the morning watch it during NBC’s repeat broadcast on Thursday.

As far as plot summary suffice it to say that a sequence of choices propel the action with the suddenness of reality and the inevitability of classical tragedy (think the Orestia) in which characters are forced to make the wrong choices for the right reasons. And as with classical tragedy, murder and death play more than a supporting role.

The story is great on its merits. But just as exciting is the way Haggis and co-creator Robert Moresco have chosen to tell it, jumping around in time – sometimes literally rewinding the action.

That, my friends, is a rave. I’m going to watch The Black Donnellys when I have a free hour. And decide who’s right.

Comments 4

  • I haven’t seen it either, but if Haggis is involved I’ll tread lightly. Thirtysomething never meant anything to me; the aspect of Million Dollar Baby worth saving is in Eastwood’s handling of his actors; Crash was a disaster, and his Flags of Our Fathers screenplay was pretty pedantic. Maybe this is different.

  • I refrained from writing a real review of the show off the first episode, because what does one episode tell you?

    After seeing a second episode I have to temper my enthusiam. I like the show, but the story and characters have already settled into a groove worn well by the sopranos as well as any number of working class family dramas.

    What I loved, adored even, about the first show was less the story than the story telling— not only the visusal cues packed with information, not only the nonchalant manner with which the narrative handled momentous choices by the characters (realistic because, after all, the characters don’t really know they’re making momentous choices, they turn momentous after), but especially the way new information–sometimes in flashbacks, sometimes in real time–kept redefining the audience’s perception of the characters.

    I heard Tom Stoppard on the radio last week talking about the ways in which drama works by changing up the way it shares information with the audience–I think what he said exactly was: sometimes it’s a matter of speeding up the information coming to the audience, sometimes slowing it down, and sometimes it’s a matter of the order in which the audience receives the info. On that last score episode 1 of TBDs was a masterpiece, esp. the final flashback moment which redefines our notion of Tommy Donnelly.

    The best parts of last nights episode were the way it presented the saintly catholic guilt that paradoxically droves Tommy into murder most foul, and of course any time Oliva Wilde was on screen.

  • My wife and I have watched both episodes and are willing to give it another week. Too much time was spent last night with the body disposal part. We’re hoping it moves along a little next week.

  • Well, I finally saw the pilot vie free iTunes download. I enjoyed it – very Goodfellas updated to even quicker cuts. Mannion’s right about the stereo types but hey, I don’t seem to mind it when it’s those danged eye-talians shooting each other up between pasta courses. The lead brother evolved a bit too quickly for my taste – from soft art student to mobster in one pilot, folks. But the dialogue was understated, which I liked. The dark, rainy shadows were great too – but where is there an el in Manhattan? This looked much more like Queens…