A bit of patience is called for when you first encounter “The Black Donnellys.” The premise of this new NBC drama would seem simple: Four working-class Irish brothers in New York City who stick together, fractiously, while tumbling into organized crime.
That’s simple enough. Except you’re seeing the Donnelly boys through the eyes of their lifelong comrade, Joey Ice Cream, who has a way of complicating things.
You meet him right away, serving time in the slammer where authorities grilling him want to know, “Where are the bodies?”
Joey just loves to hear himself talk, so he eagerly spins out Donnelly lore.
On the other hand, he never really answers any questions. (What bodies?) Nor does he seem too concerned with the truth.
Is he delusional? A pathological liar? Just a helpless motormouth? Whatever, Joey clearly prefers a colorful account over an honest one. (The reason he gives for his nickname is “under pressure I’m like ice,” yet in a childhood flashback you see for yourself it’s really because, well, he likes ice cream.)
Entering a drama through the portal of an unreliable narrator can be disorienting. But hang on. The fast-talking Joey (Keith Nobbs) lends buoyancy to a saga that otherwise is often teetering on tragedy.
In short, “The Black Donnellys,” which premieres tonight, has some artful touches befitting Paul Haggis (who directed “Crash,” last year’s Oscar-winning best picture) and co-creator Bobby Moresco (who with Haggis shared the best-screenplay Oscar).
The two have a gift for textured, elegiac depictions of a given community in crisis. A decade ago, they created “EZ Streets,” a short-lived CBS crime drama that paved the way for other extraordinary series like HBO’s “The Wire,” Showtime’s “Brotherhood” and even, arguably, HBO’s “The Sopranos.”
Now, in “The Black Donnellys,” they are painting a portrait of four brothers who, no matter how divisive the world they inhabit, nothing can pry apart — including their own best interests.
Your witness to all this is Joey, who both narrates and frequently pops up in the action (filmed beautifully on location in New York).
Early in the first episode, he introduces you to the Donnellys.
Here’s hothead Jimmy (Thomas Guiry), plagued by a limp, a drug habit and the ratty neighborhood bar he won in a craps game from its owner who, according to Joey, “SWORE he didn’t lose on purpose.”
Here’s Kevin (Billy Lush), a tireless gambler who professes to be lucky despite having “never won a bet in his life.”
Baby brother Sean (Michael Stahl-David) is a chick magnet, “which is why his brothers never let their girlfriends anywhere near him.”
And finally, here’s Tommy (Jonathan Tucker), the moral center of the series, who has “a knack for two things: drawing, and getting his brothers out of trouble.” His artistic skill could have been his ticket out, but he’ll soon be quitting art school. Fraternal obligations will seal his fate as an up-andcomer in the local Irish mob.
He’ll go up against Nicky Cottero (Kirk Acavedo), an Italian boss who is plotting to put the city’s Irish neighborhoods under his thumb.
Meanwhile, Tommy will continue to pine for Jenny Reilly (Olivia Wade), the girl he has loved since they were kids. She loves him back. Trouble is, Jenny has a husband whose mysterious yearlong absence offers no immunity from her marriage vows.
The message of “The Black Donnellys” is clear: Honor and loyalty will tie you in knots, while, in the end, guilt rules.
Even so, the series’ brooding, sometimes violent atmosphere gets comic relief.
When Kevin can’t pay his gambling debt, he finds a fallback plan: Kidnap his bookie. But waiting for the ransom to be paid, he engages his hostage in a card game. Soon, Kevin is $900 further in the hole. Now the bookie’s fed up.
“You’re not gonna pay me,” he complains, “so why should I play?”
“You calling me a welcher?” replies Kevin indignantly. “I’ll pay you out of the ransom money!”
This is the sort of foolishness Tommy has to deal with. His brothers are (to put it mildly) screw-ups, and as he scrambles to clean up after them, he exposes his own deepseated flaws.
“Be careful,” says Jenny at the counter of the diner she runs with her dad, just before Tommy again puts himself in harm’s way for his brothers. “Worry about yourself once in a while.”
It won’t happen. “The Black Donnellys” establishes an allfor-one creed shared by brothers whose sum is surely less than the parts.
So how will Tommy’s mission as the family fixer wear with viewers? Will they tire of the other brothers’ bungling, and of Tommy’s dogged campaign to bail them out? Will they dismiss the whole lot as a lost cause?
Not if Joey Ice Cream can help it. He loves them. Idolizes them. Yearns, in vain, for their approval. Always has.
“I always wanted brothers like that,” he declares. His mission is to make you want brothers like that, too.
The series premiere of “The Black Donnellys” airs 9 p.m. today on NBC.