Amish Mafia: TV Review
Discovery's docu-series on pious youth gone wild adds disclaimers to avoid the controversy that hit TLC's "Breaking Amish."
A note to aspiring writers, producers and directors: put the word "Amish" in your title and you are guaranteed a green light. Discovery is the latest network to hop aboard the Amish bandwagon-buggy with Amish Mafia, a docu-series that follows a group of young men who enforce law and order within their Lancaster, Pennsylvania community, as well as provide protection from outsiders.
Early in the review episode, Esther, sister to "mafia" member John, talks about the 2006 school shooting that left their community devastated. Things haven't been, and couldn't be, the same since. Still, the gang, lead by a young man named Levi, doesn't really patrol so much as get tips from gossipy community members to enforce morality laws, as well as set up and collect insurance from the community as a kind of social service.
Levi is joined by his right-hand man Alvin, as well as Esther's brother John and a "foot soldier" named Jolin. The Amish church does not acknowledge the existence of their group, which operates with some freedom for various reasons, like not being baptized (Levi) or being Mennonite (Jolin, which means he can drive a truck and use electricity). Jolin says that his being a Mennonite allows him to do things the others can't, with ominous implications, until we see him using his power of the English (the name for the non-Amish) to do things like tow a buggy.
Amish Mafia starts off with a text panel that explains many of the events portrayed on the show are reenactments, a statement repeated at the end of the episode in small print. Discovery is wise to include this addendum to avoid the problems that TLC's hit show Breaking Amish faced when it was revealed that not only were most of the leads no longer members of the Amish community to begin with, but that almost every relationship on the show was fake.
In Discovery's series, the cast is much smaller and those not in the main gang or Esther (the lone female represented) are blurred out, sometimes with their voices digitally altered. This adds legitimacy to the idea of filming actually taking place within an Amish community, which does not welcome prying outsiders.
As far as the "mafia's" nefarious deeds, despite the stylish camera work and suspenseful soundtrack, something is lacking in the execution of the action. Though we see promising setups like the gang finding the perpetrator of a buggy hit-and-run, more or less blackmailing a high-ranking church leader as he visits a prostitute, and stopping a man who is trying to sexually harass a community woman, the payoff is anticlimactic. We hear stories of Levi breaking arms, and see Jolin toting a rifle, but the (likely reenacted) confrontations lack punch. Mostly there's a lot of stern chiding.
There's plenty that is ripe for drama though, particularly regarding Esther and John scheming to usurp Levi. Jolin also expresses an interest in leading the group, and the undercurrent of dissatisfaction and jockeying for power looks like it could be dramatic. Then just as one begins adjusting to the nuances of the relationships, bizarrely, upcoming episode promos suggest the series suddenly careening into Breaking Amish territory, where Levi, Esther, Jolin and the others are shown dressed as "the English" and partying, even being involved in a fight club. When did this turn into The Real World: Lancaster?
If the purpose of the series is to explore a sub-culture lifestyle foreign to most Americans, Discovery's quasi-documentary approach (with educational explanations about Amish community structure, at least in the first episode) does a fair job of covering that. But Hot Snakes Media, who produced the series -- and also helmed the controversial Breaking Amish -- can't seem to help themselves in adding a kind of "...gone wild!" tag to the end of the endeavor, obliterating anything that feels informational.
At some point, someone will realize that the real drama of the Amish has less to do with seeing small town folk corrupted by the big city or "The English," and more to do with the day to day life within the community: the desire to leave, the will to stay, the friendships and connections and fears. These things are more compelling than the overhyped theatrics of a gang of wannabes. And yet, at the moment, those themes seem far more likely to come from a scripted show than those which purport to document real life.