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'The Black Donnellys,' premiering Monday on NBC

Hal Boedeker
The Orlando Sentinel (MCT)

"Hunky Gangsters" is a catchier title than "The Black Donnellys" for NBC's annoying new drama. This tricked-up product, which is basically an old-fashioned story, needs the sales boost.

With "The Black Donnellys," which debuts at 10 p.m. EST Monday, NBC yearns to hold the young viewers who have transformed lead-in "Heroes" into a hit at 9 o'clock. "The Black Donnellys" probably will deliver more viewers than "Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip," which languished in the time slot. No toughie, that one. The bigger question: Will this pretentious mob story entice viewers or put them to sleep?

The four Donnelly brothers pack not only pistols but also choirboy pusses and banged-up psyches. Although Ma Donnelly is played by one of the best actresses in this or any universe -- Kate Mulgrew of "Star Trek: Voyager" -- she is relegated to cooking and kvetching.

Ma deserves better. She won't get it. The sons are lures for young viewers. The second episode forces Tommy Donnelly (Jonathan Tucker) to strip to his skivvies to perform a bloody task. Ultrafit Tommy should be selling exercise machines. But his wayward brothers keep pulling him, like Michael Corleone, into the underworld.

"The Black Donnellys" is not top of the world -- sorry, Ma -- or the second coming of "The Sopranos." The new drama is old wine poured into fancy, contemporary bottles.

The pourers are prestigious writers: Paul Haggis and Bobby Moresco collected Academy Awards last year for "Crash." So it would seem a coup for NBC to have them. TV buffs will recall that Haggis created "EZ Streets," a stellar crime drama that had a short run on CBS.

This time, Haggis traces how the Irish Donnellys clash with Italian mobsters on the mean streets of New York. An old man says of the Donnellys, "It's like something in their blood. No matter how hard they try to do good, that blood is always going to seep through, and it pours into whatever it touches."

Oh, Ma, haven't we moved beyond that blarney? The writers rely on a flaky narrator, Joey Ice Cream (Keith Nobbs), to recount the Donnelly saga. Joey Ice Cream -- ha! He is not delicious in any way.

The writers uncork pat surprises to explain their characters' actions. The tone ranges from zany to melancholy. Particularly bleak is Tommy's tortured love for childhood pal Jenny Reilly (Olivia Wilde).

The Donnelly boys would mortify most mamas. Oldest brother Jimmy (Thomas Guiry) has a gimpy leg and a combustible personality. Kevin (Billy Lush) is a dense and hopeless gambler. Sean (Michael Stahl-David) is a ladies' man and a cipher. Tommy hopes to be an artist but feels obligated to save his brothers.

After watching five hours, I feel Tommy's pain. Those brothers aren't worth the trouble.

The same goes for "The Black Donnellys." It left me feeling sad. Prime time won't accommodate an older mobster, such as Jack Nicholson's character in "The Departed." Thus, crime drama is wasted on the young.

A better path for "The Black Donnellys"? Keep Tommy in his underwear and help him break into male modeling.

___

THE BLACK DONNELLYS

Cast: Jonathan Tucker, Thomas Guiry, Billy Lush, Keith Nobbs, Michael Stahl-David.

Where and when: The NBC crime drama debuts at 10 p.m. EST Monday, its regular slot.

Parents' guide: Extreme violence, drug use, coarse language, sexual situations.

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