I watched an insipid new show last night, The Black Donnellys on NBC. What a piece of shit this thing is. When I started watching it, I didn't realize it was made by Paul Haggis (Crash) or else I'd have known better and not even bothered. Much like he did in the manipulative, obnoxiously obvious, and grotesquely over-rated Crash, Haggis is using his shortcut tricks instead of ever bothering to storytell.
And that is my primary problem with the show -- his utter lack of craftsmanship -- although the added bonus is the numbingly simplistic race portrayals used in place of actual drama.
It's going to be either serendipitous or disastrous for this show that it debuts right on the heels of mob-master Martin Scorsese finally taking home his long overdue accolades. It could be fortuitous for this show, because it can capitalize on the success of Irish mob-drama Best Picture winner The Departed. But if you've seen The Departed or Goodfellas, what the fuck is the point of watching this sub-par rip-off? I mean, unless you're so in love with the Goodfellas scene where Joe Pesci and Robert DeNiro kick the everloving shit out of a fellow wiseguy on the floor of a bar. Granted, that is one of the most viscerally evocative scenes in film. And Haggis certainly knows this, because the fucking hack duplicated the scene not once, but twice in last night's premier -- right down to the famous freeze shot of DeNiro mid-kick.
I cringed for poor Kirk Acevedo. I bothered to watch this show because he was in it. (Well, him and the potential for some dreamily rough-and-gruff Irish thugs to set my pulse racing.) Just like Hot Bobby Cannavale, Kirk is one of my favorite actors, but unlike Hot Bobby, who at least landed "The Station Agent" and occasionally manages to steal small scenes in larger movies, Kirk never gets his break or a meaty role (other than in indie films) that's worthy of him. Instead he gets the unenviable task of refilming -- and then refilming again -- the DeNiro kick scene in a pale, middling television show. I felt like I was trapped in The Matrix and the deja vu cat kept walking by. Fucking ghastly, it really was.
And it pretty much sums up the simplistic, condescending approach to television we're seeing in this new drama. I have three nephews, so I understand the current struggle to make constant-action "dramas" to keep those short attention spans watching. The rapid-cut, punch-a-minute, shock-is-entertainment generation really does get bored easily. And so do I. But a turbo-charged voice-over and frenzied spiral into bodies-in-motion just doesn't work to create "drama." Haggis was somehow able to master all the shortcuts of color and scenery-chewing and music and over-the-top rapid action -- combined with incredible, outlandish contrivance and coincidence and reliance on dues ex machina -- and cleave them into an amalgamation of stereotypes screaming at us that racism is bad, and therefore earn himself an Oscar because Crash was apparently an important, liberal message movie.
Let me make it clear -- yeah, racism is bad. And oh yeah, I do think there are heavy and obvious race problems out there, not to mention much more insidious and subtle race problems in our society. And now I'm talking not about "Crash", but about "The Black Donnellys." I grew up in a neighborhood that was Italian-Irish infested, and even now I live in the same kind of mix. There is without question a rivalry between the two cultures, and it's storied and rife with history, but also loaded with nuance. It's probably a big reason why I have such an attraction and weakness for the bad Irish boys. I'm sure it's a product of my upbringing, but it's so entrenched it feels as though it's hard-wired into my DNA.
But that's a subtle, personal innuendo of Italian-Irish race relations. But it's also that exact subtle kind of touch that Haggis's cardboard figures won't ever be able to grasp or portray. And that's because they're figures, not characters. I know it was only the first episode, but in a good drama, the first episode sets the tone and we have to at least get a sense of what these *people* are like. But there are no people here -- only conceits.
As for those studly Irish thugs I was hoping for? I caught glimpses of their faces as the voice-over told me what they did, which is what passes for defining them in this plot-at-all-costs non-melodrama. We then saw two-second shots of them being that thing: The one draws. (He's the thoughtful one -- Mike) The one limps. (He's a hothead asshole -- Sonny) The one makes out with chicks. (He's adorable and dumb -- Fredo.) And one poor brother? They didn't even take the time to give this fucker a shortcut schtick, let alone a whole identity! I guess they wanted there to be four of them so it wouldn't be so obviously a knock-off the Corleone crew, but they were too stupid to figure out how to pigeonhole the fourth one. Idiots. Haven't they ever seen Entourage or Sex and the City to figure out which archetypes to use when the cast is four deep?
It figures that Haggis would want to appear to be distancing himself from the Godfather formula for brotherly love while blatantly ripping it off. One of Haggis's conceits is that the Irish revile the Italians and vice-versa. What he's throwing up on the screen in this show isn't what I'd consider vile stereotypes or even remotely offensive. It's just way too idiotically over-simplified. But it's also much easier to portray when you have to keep everyone moving and punching and shooting and pointlessly crashing into each other.
You want some good Irish drama? Stick with Rescue Me.