A Series in Review
In the name of "Family Above All", as the tagline boldly declares, Paul Haggis and Robert Moresco's "The Black Donnellys" is the story of a good man driven to do all the wrong things for all the right reasons. Such is the plight of Tommy Donnelly (Jonathan Tucker), who sees nearly his entire life devoted to keeping his three ne'er-do-well siblings - would-be criminal mastermind Jimmy (Tom Guiry), unlucky gambler Kevin (Billy Lush), and dropout womanizer Sean (Michael Stahl-David) - out of trouble, an effort they scarcely make a simple one.
Just as Tommy dreams of moving on from the neighborhood he's lived all his life, each sibling has their own idea of "wanting more", most of all Jimmy, who invariably opts for the quick and criminal path to striking it big. He is most often at odds with Tommy, and theirs has shades of Fredo and Michael Corleone's relationship; one the older brother who naturally feels inclined to lead but is not taken seriously by anyone else, the other the calmer and smarter sibling who has to take the lead regardless not wanting the job. Despite his best efforts to keep the peace, Tommy is goaded into increasingly violent acts in the name of defending his family. The phrase "I'll take care of it" becomes his trademark in early episodes, the effect of which is not unlike that of Vincent Vega visiting the bathroom in Pulp Fiction.
At the heart of Tommy's moral dilemma is his complicated relationship with Jenny Reilly (Olivia Wilde), his childhood sweetheart and occasional confidante. Just as she's an outsider to the Donnelly family, Jenny is often an outsider to the main events of the season, just as much by her own design as by happenstance. Their mutual attraction is established within but a few minutes into the pilot, and the series plays a mean switcheroo on the will-they-won't-they dynamic by having them crash together at the close of episode two, "A Stone of the Heart", only for Jenny to spurn Tommy just before the credits roll.
The drawn-out question from then on is, were they ever meant to be? Their brief tryst had its own set of hurdles - namely the interference of Jenny's frowning father (Kevin Conway), and her marriage to a missing schoolteacher who befell some undetermined fatal mishap. The obstacle that keeps dividing them through the season is whether Jenny can forgive Tommy's means regardless his ends. The answer is ever in flux; two back-to-back episodes, "Run Like Hell" and "The Only Thing Sure", see Jenny chastise Tommy for what she believes are heinous means by which he obtains money to help her, then embrace him gratefully when he procures the money to save her father's diner. The difference maker is how honest he is with her about his methods - in the former instance, Tommy tries to pass off the money as an anonymous gift, whereas in the latter he openly warns her, "If I can get the money, you may not like how I do it."
But before their reconciliation can gain any steam, the very next episode, "In Each One a Savior", sees Jimmy again become the wedge between Tommy's long-term wants and his family's immediate needs. Where every bad turn in Tommy's life arrives, Jimmy's hand is usually to be found. So often is it Jimmy that feeds the storm that it could be argued he in fact is the Donnelly family's worst enemy, more than even Dokey Farrell (Peter Greene) or Nicky Cottero (Kirk Acevedo), the two main antagonists representing the Irish and Italian mobs, respectively - both adept at the intimidation game in their own right, but neither are nearly as harmful to Tommy and his family than Jimmy. To their credit, neither Dokey nor Nicky are portrayed as some untouchable Mr. Big, as both see the business of end of bloodshed, and both have higher authorities to which they must answer.
This is one the series' better attributes, its ability to humanize its worst characters. Even fearsome Dokey has a quiet and touching educational moment with his young nephew that's a pleasant opposite to his axe-weilding tactics. And Jimmy, who quickly climbs the ranks of most dislikable character on the show - with a laundry list of defects beginning with his loud-mouthed bravado and not even ending with his drug addiction - has his most sympathetic moment in the penultimate episode "The Black Drop", which sees him abused, humiliated, and tossed into the street, and even given everything the audience has witnessed of him to that point, it's difficult not to feel the pangs of compassion as he bursts into tears in Tommy's arms.
The show is at its best when focused on the principal leads, particularly the commanding Jonathan Tucker, who may be the result of a genetic splice between Clifton Collins, Jr. and Joseph Gorden-Levitt. It's his striking portrait of a man on the thin border between sanity and chaos that cemented my continued interest in the series past the pilot. The dynamic between himself and his onscreen brothers is often hilarious and moving, and always engaging, no less so when they're cooperating than when they're coming to blows. As the romantic lead, Olivia Wilde's naturally subdued, sultry growl well complements Tucker's bottled intensity, making Tommy and Jenny's rocky courtship, and their continual battle of things said vs. things should-have-said, just as frustrating for the audience as for the characters themselves, without devolving into shouting-match melodramatics - although it stands to reason the two would have to eventually have it out in a big way if their relationship was ever to move forward.
The cast also boasts an impressive selection of recognizable genre faces - "Star Trek Voyager" captain Kate Mulgrew as Helen, the Donnelly's no-bull matriarch; "Die Hard" alum WIlliam Sadler as a painter who briefly mentors Tommy; "Cloverfield" lead Michael Stahl-David as Sean; a pre-"Legend of the Seeker" (and fan favorite Wonder Woman hopeful) Bridget Regan as a councilman's aide and pawn of Nicky; future "Iron Man 3" heavy James Badge Dale as Samson, whom Jenny beds in an ill-advised one night stand; Peter Greene of "The Mask", "Pulp Fiction" and "The Usual Suspects" fame as Dokey; Seamus Davey-Fitzpatrick, Damien Thorn of 2006's remake of "The Omen", as Dokey's nephew Matthew, who takes a liking to Tommy and takes it upon himself to keep an ugly secret for him; and a personal shock to myself in writing this article, Tom Guiry, formerly the shy Scotty Smalls of "The Sandlot", as the ignoble Jimmy.
While the ominous opening quotations that lends each episode its title give one the constant premonition of impending disaster for Tommy and company, the tone is kept from getting too grim through regular flashes of humor between Tommy's brooding and Nicky's schemes, thanks to characters like Kevin and Sean, Nicky's sidekick and verbal punching bag Vinnie (Brian Tarantina), and particularly Donnelly cohort and highly unreliable narrator Joey Ice Cream (Keith Nobbs).
It is around Joey's prison-bound intros and epilogues that the events of the season unravel, wherein it appears the Donnellys manage their survival on a long string of bizarre coincidences and lucky breaks, including a darkly hysterical death in episode three, "God Is a Comedian". All of which of course assumes that Joey can be taken at his word, which his interrogators routinely do not. And why should they, given most of what he describes happens without him present? A fine bit of meta-humor in early episodes (that thankfully does not overstay its welcome) sees Joey literally insert himself into a flashback, much to the chagrin of those already there, who startled by his appearance remark, "Where did he come from?"
One may wonder at first why it's Joey, as a sort of fast-talking Rod Serling, who relays the tragedy of the Donnellys. The answer becomes plainly evident by the end of the pilot; nobody knows the ins and outs of the Donnellys better than Joey, up to and including his knowledge of Tommy's most haunting secret, the inevitable revelation of which would have been a major breaking point among the brothers in a future season.
That is the show's single largest problem, that it has no concrete ending. To be fair, neither did, say, Firefly, but the collected episodes did feel like a whole and cohesive story, with only a few major loose threads to tie up with the film Serenity. "The Black Donnellys" finale episode "Easy Is The Way", while ending with a thrilling confrontation between the Donnellys and their enemies, leaves a laundry list of pressing questions unanswered - who lived and died, the fate of the crime family leadership, the events that landed Joey Ice Cream in jail, and of course the direction of Tommy and Jenny's relationship - and any number of outcomes could be inferred by Joey's dejected final line.
And where could the show have gone had it the chance? Say for a moment it were up to me...
If the introductory season was about Tommy Donnelly's fall from…not quite "grace", let's say "decency"...its eventual end could have seen Jimmy Donnelly's redemption and last-ditch efforts to save his brother's soul. Spurred by the brutal end of "Easy Is The Way", Tommy dives further into the darkness, taking the fight-fire-with-fire approach to putting the mobs in their place; whilst Jimmy, finally taking the steps to better himself (as he begrudgingly decides in the finale), takes responsibility for the wrongs he's committed and starts to become the elder sibling he should have been from the beginning - but still mucking things up in gloriously chaotic fashion as habit dictates.
As for Tommy and Jenny? Her conduct in the finale, wherein she takes an act of violence in response to her own developing nightmare situation, could put her in a state of greater understanding of Tommy's decisions, yet at the same drive her further away in order to avoid his path; but when Tommy inevitable returns to her for aid, he finds a colder, harder woman than the one he wooed in season one, and only when circumstances - say, the destruction of Reilly's Diner - reconnect her with the Donnellys can she reconnect with her own heart.
With the increased talk recently of gone-before-their-time television shows getting their own theatrical epilogues, it would be lovely to see the Donnellys get their due. But given the finale's open-endedness akin to a gaping wound, the passage of time since, and that the show has not quite obtained a cult following the likes of Firefly, Veronica Mars, or Arrested Development, one might be at a loss to pick up the story and finish it cleanly.
Whatever fate had in store for Tommy and family, only Haggis, Moresco, and Joey Ice Cream know for certain.
"The Black Donnellys" complete series set is available on DVD, and presently on Netflix Instant Watch.