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'Black Donnellys' is a pale imitation of 'The Sopranos'

Jonathan Tucker stars as one of the Donnelly brothers. Jonathan Tucker stars as one of the Donnelly brothers. (VIRGINIA SHERWOOD/NBC)

Now that the brainy but romantically sophomoric "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip" has failed to grab Monday night viewers, NBC is going for a more visceral punch.

"The Black Donnellys," which premieres tonight at 10 on Channel 7, is a bloody, bleak Irish mob series that would be the worst nightmare of "Studio 60" if they met in a dark alley. Obviously, NBC is hoping this New York street-fighting drama will pounce on and hold onto more of the big "Heroes" lead-in audience than Aaron Sorkin's weaker effort, which has gone to that great hiatus in the sky.

About the violent turf war among Irish and Italian thugs in Hell's Kitchen, "The Black Donnellys" is from Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco, who collaborated on Oscar winners "Crash" and "Million Dollar Baby." They're not parlaying their Hollywood power to conquer series TV; they've been into the small screen throughout their careers -- Haggis with "thirtysomething" and "Family Law," Moresco with "Millennium" and "Falcone." Together, they created 1996's "EZ Streets," a short-lived crime series that was too dark and brooding to build an audience.

"The Black Donnellys" is as moody and cinematic as "EZ Streets," with dreary, artsy lighting and a tone of pent-up anger. But the show has borrowed from many superior mob movies and series, it won't make you think of "EZ Streets" so much as "Mean Streets," along with "Goodfellas," "The Usual Suspects," "Sleepers," and, of course, "The Sopranos." From its eternally 1950s-style neighborhood to character names such as Joey Ice Cream and Louie Downtown, "Donnellys" is extremely derivative. Many new crime shows take their cues from Quentin Tarantino, but this one lifts from less pop-culture-obsessed sources.

And ultimately "The Black Donnellys" pales in the light of its lofty influences. The show is engaging at times; but it's familiar enough to be expendable. NBC will surely improve on the "Studio 60" ratings with it; the young cast of "Donnellys" practically guarantees that. There are doubtless some viewers who like the idea of a network version of "The Sopranos" with pretty boys. By next week's episode, the show is openly courting those viewers by having one of its six-pack-abbed hunks stripping down to his skivvies to oh-so-slowly shower off blood.

But I don't expect this series to catch on, particularly as the tight pilot gives way to more meandering hours the next few weeks. Tonight's episode has drive, an amusingly scrambled narrative, and violence that makes plot sense; the next two episodes reveal a lack of direction and the kind of gratuitous gore that comes off like cable envy.

The four Donnelly brothers are accidental mobsters, scrappy kids who stumble into power. Tommy (Jonathan Tucker, originally from Charlestown), is the smart one, and he aspires to be an artist. He'd like to leave the life, but, to paraphrase Michael Corleone in "The Godfather, Part III," just when he thinks he's out they pull him back in. Despite his reticence, Tommy is the fiercest of the four when it comes to dodging the wrath of both the Italian mob and the new head of the Irish mob.

Tucker makes Tommy's moral struggle palpable. And, as the temperamental brother Jimmy, who undoes any peace that Tommy builds in the neighborhood, Tom Guiry has a Sean Penn-like intensity. (He was a knockout in an indie movie called "The Mudge Boy.") But neither actor can erase the fact that all the brothers -- Sean (Michael Stahl-David) is the ladies man and Kevin (Billy Lush) is the gambler -- are written as types built on Irish cliches. And shamelessly so.

"People think we're all drunks and brawlers," says narrator, Joey Ice Cream, "and sometimes that gets you so mad, all you want to do is get drunk and punch somebody."

"Donnellys" offers a simplistic take on the question of "the ties that bind," as Tommy helps his brothers despite their attraction to trouble. Out of blood loyalty, and guilt for a past wrong, he gives up his creative dream and his possibilities with longtime crush Jenny (Olivia Wilde). It's the same family loyalty that Showtime's more enterprising Irish-mob drama "Brotherhood" turns upside-down and then over again. Unfortunately, thematic ingenuity isn't among the many things "The Black Donnellys" has borrowed.

Matthew Gilbert can be reached at For more on TV, visit