It Tastes as Good as it Smells
"The Black Donnellys" / The TV Whore
Feb. 26, 2007
TV Reviews | February 26, 2007 | Comments ()
Ladies and gentlemen, let’s cook up some Haggis!
1. Begin with a sheep’s stomach, giving it a long, hard cleaning, and then flip it inside out and let it soak overnight in cold salt water. Haggis is a traditional Scottish meat dish that is prepared by being cooked inside the stomach of a sheep, which sounds nasty and almost hurts to look at. Likewise, Paul Haggis is a Hollywood hack, who writes and doctors up scripts by using every tired cliché known to man, and his dialogue also sounds nasty and absolutely hurts to watch. And just like you need to condition the sheep’s stomach for a day before actually cooking up some haggis, it’s best to condition your brain for a day before watching anything Haggis’ golden pen has touched. I suggest steeping your brain in malt liquor the night before.
2. The next day, wash the heart and lungs of a lamb and put them into a pan of cold water along with a pound of lamb trimmings, bringing it all to a boil and letting it cook for two hours. A lamb’s heart, lungs, and “trimmings” are the core ingredients of Haggis. And now that you’ve been drinking all night, you’re ready to watch the premiere of “The Black Donnellys” (NBC, Mondays, 10 p.m.), and it’s best to know the show’s core ingredients before getting into it. As you have surely figured out by now (if you didn’t already know this from the endless NBC promos), Paul Haggis is the exec-producer of the series and the writer of the premiere. So you should already be able to figure out the show’s core: bad characters, worse dialogue, and clichés out the yin-yang. But you’re in for a real treat here, because at the show’s tasty center is a heaping pile of bad acting, overblown music, bad acting, flashy quick cuts, and, lest we forget, bad acting.
3. Two hours later, strain the stock off the hearty-lungy meat mixture, keeping the stock for later. Mince the hearty-lungy meat mixture. This is where you really try to start putting your separate elements into one yummy cohesive mass of goodness. Sadly, “The Black Donnellys” fails to be very cohesive. The mess here focuses on four Irish brothers living in NYC’s Hell’s Kitchen. One brother, Tommy (Jonathan Tucker), is the “good” brother who is in art school but keeps getting pulled down because of his continued vigilance over his other hoodlum brothers (because, of course, their O’Father is no longer of this world, so the responsibility falls to the “responsible” sibling). And the other three brothers aren’t just hoodlums, they’re absolutely stupid petty-criminal-wannabes. Through their idiocy, they end up mixing it up with La Cosa Nostra, which is no surprise because Haggis loves to dive right into the obvious theme, and the Irish/Italian animosity is an easy one for him to leap into head first (and there certainly is quite a bit of reality behind this stereotypical animosity — I live in Boston, so I’m quite familiar with it — but that doesn’t mean Haggis had to immediately go there).
By the end of the first episode, the brothers have
stumbled risen from low-level hoods to essentially “owning” the Irish ‘hood, which of course means they’re now going to have to defend it (a point that we’re basically told word-for-word, just to make sure everyone is absolutely clear). But in the full-blown war between the Irish and the Italian mob, there’s absolutely no reason to think that the Donnelly family has a prayer of surviving for more than about another two episodes. See, the Italian mob comes off the way you expect a criminal organization to be run — they’re cold, hard, and exact. Like the Soprano “family,” without the gay Vitos and therapy sessions. But aside from Tommy (the eventual Michael Corleone of the Donnelly clan), the brothers are simply way out of their league. Which of course means that, to keep them in the fight, the show’s really going to have to stretch the credibility in typical Haggis fashion. Sort of the way a sheepskin stretches when you fill it up with a hearty-lungy meat mixture. But I’m getting ahead of myself in the recipe.
4. Chop up two onions, real fine-like. This is a Haggis special: convoluted plot-points intended to forcibly evoke tears, just as if you were cutting an onion. And so it should come as no surprise that he has it going on in the “Donnellys.” For example, there’s a scene where one of the brothers has the hurt put on him — and it’s a pretty solid hurting at that — and it’s supposed to really tug at your heart strings and get you a little misty because, while the brother kind of deserves the beating, he doesn’t really deserve it and is basically taking it for one of his other brothers. And just in case you’re not sure that this is supposed to be a big quasi-tragic moment, fear not, because there is also entirely unaffecting yet totally overblown “emotional” music to cue those onion tears.
Sadly, this scene fares far better than the episode’s other onion moment. I won’t say much about it, so as not to give away the “surprise” of it for those of you that might actually care, but here’s the background — one of the other brothers, Jimmy the “hothead” (Tom Guiry), suffered a leg injury as a kid. And as we’re told, this was “the day that changed his life.” So at the end of the episode, we learn some new info about this monumental event that’s supposed to give you some keen insight into one of the other character’s motivations and really tug at those heartstrings. But the Haggis filth was just too much here for me; I literally laughed out loud at the revelation. As loud a laugh as “Arrested Development” or “The Office” has ever pulled out of me. So, at least I can say the show has some solid laughs, unintentional though they may be.
5. Add the onions and hearty-lungy meat mixture into a bowl with eight ounces of oatmeal and various seasonings (tablespoon each of salt, ground black pepper, ground dried coriander, nutmeg, and mace). It’s this seasoning, the “little things,” that can really make or break your haggis. And with “The Black Donnellys,” some of the little things actually do work (or at least almost work). Principally among the little things are the secondary characters, mainly because they are played by great actors: There’s Huey, a bigwig Irish hood (played by Chris Bauer, who was amazing as Frank Sabotka on the second season of “The Wire”); there’s Sal Minetta, the head of the Italian Mob (Mark Margolis, one of “those guys,” who also sticks out to me as the mobster who got injected with AIDS on “Oz”); there’s Nicky, a Mob foot soldier (played by Kirk Acevedo, also best known for a role on “Oz,” as Miguel Alvarez); and finally, there’s Benny Cool, another Mob foot soldier (played by Lenny Venito who is currently on “The Knights of Prosperity,” but who’s also been on “The Sopranos” as … a Mob foot soldier).
Anyway, these four, in parts of varying sizes, were all significantly better than the four actors who play the Donnelly brothers (more on that in a bit). Sadly, in another example of fabulous Haggisian decision-making, not all of these characters survive the first episode, thereby robbing the show of what was probably its strongest element (and one wonders how much we’ll even see of those who do survive). Why keep good actors in your show when you can kill ‘em off to make more room for the bad?
Surprisingly, another thing that almost worked for the show is its overall tonal quality. Not its tone, per se — it doesn’t quite have a well-defined tone yet, feeling a bit unsure as to what it actually wants to be. But the quality of how the show is shot and edited and produced is actually not bad. It’s a little too flashy in terms of the “clever” quick-cuts, but they kind of work for the most part. However, there are two things that end up spoiling this aspect of the show. The first is the awful decision to include voice-over narration, a lazy tool employed by a lazy writer. The other problem is that this show comes to the party in the wake of The Departed, so that much of its style, such as the use of Dropkick Murphys-style Irish/Celtic pipe-rock, ends up feeling a bit like an also-ran. It’s one of the few things you actually can’t blame on Haggis, as it’s as much a matter of bad timing as anything else. But you can blame him, presumably, for the choice to use a narrator, which is actually the bigger problem here. So thanks for that, Paul.
6. Mix everything up, adding any stock you might need, to turn it all into a nice little moist and soft crumbly thing. Fill the sheep’s stomach up about halfway with the moist and soft and crumbly hearty-lungy seasoned meat mixture. So this is where you’re really supposed to pull all of your haggis elements together. And with “The Black Donnellys,” we already know there’s at least a glimmer of potential in some of the side things, but that there’s also some pretty terrible plot to deal with. So the only thing that can pull it all together is if the main characters and actors can keep you interested and engrossed. And I’ve already tipped my hand here — they can’t. In fact, I think Haggis and the casting directors skipped right over this step entirely, because this is where the show totally fell apart for me.
When I reviewed “The State Within,” I was in the minority of people who were entirely unimpressed by Sharon Gless’ performance. In similar fashion, though not quite to the same extent, I’ve seen and read that some folks seem to think the acting of the four brothers here is fine to very good. Which is a way of saying, I guess: To each his own. But for what it’s worth, for me, these four brothers were simply awful.
They are badly written caricatures brought to life by less-than-expert performers. Now the premiere episode focused a bit more on two of the brothers, so I can’t speak as much for the other two (in fact, I’m not even entirely sure of their names, although I think it’s Kevin and Sean), although I was thoroughly underwhelmed anytime they were involved in the action. But I can speak for the other two brothers, and the words I have ain’t so kind.
One of the focused-on brothers is Tommy, the “good” art student I mentioned before — the character is an old cliché, and Haggis and company don’t add anything to freshen him up. Which is made all the worse by Tucker, an actor who seems a bit strained to even pull off the cliché. In almost every scene, Tucker seems to have only three expressions — a doe-eyed Jake Gyllenhaal thing, a smirky/mugging DeNiro-a-lá-Fockers thing, and an acting class “now let me see ‘anger’” thing. It’s not that Tucker is awful (at least, I don’t think), he’s just not very good, and worse, he’s distracting. His only saving grace is that he almost pulls off Tommy’s ending scenes, and if he can carry that forward, there’s a chance that Tucker will at least live up to the cliché. Of course, that potential is countered by his scenes with the works-in-a-diner Jenny Reilly, played by Olivia Wilde (who, while nice to look at, isn’t exactly an acting force of her own). The pair comes off with all the charisma of, say, two very shiny and pretty radishes.
Nevertheless, Tucker is like a Raging Bull De Niro in comparison to Guiry, who plays the hot-headed Jimmy. To be fair, Guiry is similarly handicapped by a poorly written character, the stereotypical fuckup. Drinking, drugging, fighting, criminalizing — Jimmy does it all, and he does it all rather poorly. Of course, while this is as good a stereotypical character as you can get, especially when you make him Irish, there are certain places an actor can go with such a character that end up making the role fascinating — while it’s a much better written part, I’m particularly thinking of what Dennis Leary has done with Tommy Gavin in “Rescue Me,” a character who could be described exactly as I just described Jimmy. Trouble here is, Guiry doesn’t bother with subtlety (he probably learned that from Mr. Haggis). He makes absolutely no interesting choices in the way he portrays the character’s self-destructive anger, and just delivers a rote, overblown, and generally ridiculous performance.
Although to be fair, Jimmy does at least get my second favorite character “insight” of the episode (my favorite being the aforementioned laugh-out-loud moment). See, Jimmy’s Irish, so of course he hates the Italians. But Jimmy really hates the Italians because the Donnelly’s O’Father was beaten to death by some Italian mob goombahs when Jimmy was just a wee lass, but Jimmy blames himself for the incident. That’s where it all went wrong for wee Jimmy.
The other major problem with the brothers is that they not only fail as individual characters, but they fail as a collective. The chemistry among them is lacking, and all of the drama between them (the in-fighting and the boys-will-be-boys crap) is handled with the kind of non-subtlety Haggis loves. It’s impossible to believe that these four can manage keep their bar open (oh yeah — the four Irish brothers own and run a bar, if you can possibly believe that), let alone avoid already being dead or crippled or in prison. And it’s not just because each actor lacks any semblance of the grit these characters need. Doesn’t help, but the real problem is that these characters just kinda blow.
10. Sew the stomach up, but pierce it in a couple of places so it doesn’t blow up on you. Put the stomach in a pan of boiling water, cover it with a lid, and cook it for three hours, adding water as necessary to keep the stomach covered. Trying to analogize a haggis recipe to the premiere episode of “The Black Donnellys” is probably just the kind of overblown, obvious and stupid thing Haggis himself might try. And in my best impression of Haggis, my wonderful idea has petered out before the finish line, and I can’t even stretch another part of the review to fit with this step in the recipe. But that’s fine, as I only have three more comments about my favorite new show.
One — they actually have characters called Joey “Ice Cream” and Louie “Downtown.” It’s like a third-grader’s version of what a grownup hardboiled show should be.
Two — the concept of the premiere (which I understand is carried through at least the first three episodes) is that a friend/fellow Irish hood is detailing the story of the Donnellys to some cops in an interrogation room. Narration can sometimes be a very useful tool in television and movies. But more times than not, it’s a crutch that allows the writer and director to simply tell you something, rather than trying to figure out how to show it to you (or, god forbid, making you figure it out on your own). It also lets them hammer home points just in case the viewer is too stupid to get it (like that moment I mentioned when the narrator makes sure to tell us that Jimmy’s leg injury was “the day that changed his life”). Not to mention the fact that, with this guy basically giving up all of the goods on the Donnellys, any ending to the show other than them getting arrested would make no sense. And since this is Haggis, I’m sure there will be such a nonsensical ending.
And lastly, here’s everything you need to know about “The Black Donnellys,” a quote delivered to us early in the show by Joey “Ice Cream,” our helpful narrator:
The Irish have always been victims of negative stereotyping. I mean, people think that we’re all drunks and brawlers. And sometimes that gets you so mad, all you want to do is get drunk and punch somebody.
12. Three hours later…ta-da! Cooked Haggis!
1. The above recipe is my version of the “authentic recipe from Scotland,” available on BBC’s Food and Lifestyle section.)
2. I’ve never tried haggis, truth be told, and it actually doesn’t sound terrible, despite the stuffed sheepskin, so this review is in no way meant to suggest that just because Haggis sucks, haggis also sucks.
Seth Freilich is Pajiba’s television columnist. He’s waiting for the day that some type of food shares its name with his last name, though he suspects an alcoholic beverage of some sort would probably be more fitting.