Sunday, February 25, 2007

T.V. on TV: The Black Donnellys, Raines and The Winner

It’s tempting to write off The Black Donnellys (premiering Monday night at 10 p.m. EST on NBC) as The Sopranos Lite. And, to be fair, in many ways it is. It’s got the same greasy thrill of the underworld aesthetic that the superior HBO series has. Its one differing trait – that it traces how a gang of mobsters got to the top instead of starting that chronicle when the mobsters were already at the top – isn’t sufficiently different enough to set it far enough apart from Tony and his crew. Even the larger themes (the importance of family, the gradual corrupting influence of crime) are major Sopranos themes (not to mention major themes of those other two modern documents of the mob – The Godfather movies and Goodfellas). Add in the fact that the series comes from the much-vilified Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco (the Oscar-winning screenwriters of Best Picture winner Crash; Haggis, in addition, was responsible for the script for the previous Best Picture winner, Million Dollar Baby, too), and you have what seems like a recipe for a hubristic failure.

What’s remarkable is that The Black Donnellys isn’t a failure. In fact, it’s really quite good if you can overlook all of the things it cribs from greater works. Haggis’ direction, in particular, is thrillingly cinematic. His camera is always moving, taking the point-of-view of a young mobster on the run or a car about to run over a young child or even taking a Gods-eye view of a beating. It’s not horribly original stuff, but on basic network television, where the same handful of shots seems to turn up on every show, it feels strikingly fresh.

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