With “The Departed” pulling off a best-picture win at last week’s Academy Awards, the crime caper is officially cool again. And it’s not a moment too soon for NBC. After the now-comatose “Studio 60 on the Sunset Strip,” perhaps permanently, the network debuted its much-anticipated mob drama “The Black Donnellys” last Monday, a week earlier than expected. Though probably over hyped, the intricate production is an intriguing, refined drama that may actually meet the high expectations for an entry into this genre.

Set in the present-day streets of New York City, “The Black Donnellys” centers on the perpetual turf war between Italian and Irish mobs, who have divided the city by neighborhood, daring anyone to cross the lines. The main characters are the Donnelly brothers (Tommy, Jimmy, Kevin and Sean), four black Irishmen who are as close as they’re mistrusted. The Italian mob murdered their father, setting the stage for familial vengeance.

With their solidarity, the Donnelly brothers have acquired a lot of power even at their young age. Their biggest fan, a friend named Joey Ice Cream (because, you see, he’s cool), narrates the story from prison. In the pilot, Joey gives us the rundown on each of the brothers, the most important of whom are Tommy and Jimmy. Jimmy is the crazy one who steals trucks and kidnaps Italians with names like Louie Downtown. Tommy is the responsible one who deals with the fallout.

Though the plot has loose ends, they’re all fascinating bits of a worthwhile story. The premise more than hints at Martin Scorsese’s “Mean Streets,” but it’s deep enough and the characters are lively enough to keep it fresh and consistently engaging.

Tommy Donnelly especially is a character in the mold of the classic mob hero. By hitting back against the Italians’ latest power grab, he suddenly finds himself at the head of their Irish opposition. The considerable anguish and sacrifice it took for him to get there is an appropriately understated lead-in to subsequent episodes.

The show’s many thematic montages, rich in concept and implication, are the work of writer/director Paul Haggis. Having come ever-so-close to being the first man ever to co-write three straight best pictures (“Million Dollar Baby” in 2005, “Crash” last year and “Letters from Iwo Jima” this year), Haggis has quickly become known for the gravity of his product, even if it sometimes misses the mark. Here, he presents a polished take on the age-old story of the toll that mob life takes on a good man. “Donnellys” clearly reflects Haggis’s personal touch – and the show only benefits from it.

As an urbane, sophisticated entry from a respected screenwriter, “Donnellys” actually has much in common with “Studio 60.” Aaron Sorkin’s drama, set behind the scenes of a late-night sketch-comedy show, was also highly anticipated and opened to rave reviews before falling off the face of the earth (its ratings had sunk into the low 2s, which is bad even for a late-night rerun of “Friends). It’s unclear if “Donnellys” can retain viewers that continually tune in to “Heroes,” the show’s lead-in. The show is more than capable of acting as a stand-in for “Studio 60” – NBC promises to bring it back at some point, so it may only be a four-to-six week run for the Donnellys. Whether it could stand on its own remains to be seen.

The Black Donnellys

Mondays at 10 p.m.


Rating: 3.5 out of 5 stars

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