The Replacements Come to Monday Nights

I’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.