Italian TV No Longer Married to the Mob

Gomorrah Season 3 - Still 1 -Publicity-H 2017
Courtesy of Sky Italia

While mafia-focused series like 'Gomorrah' continue to play well around the globe, a new wave of home-grown series hope to show the world there’s much more to Italy than organized crime.

Sky Italia celebrated another successful reign of Gomorrah, as the third season of the original mafia drama garnered record numbers, with each episode attracting around one million viewers. The season premiere brought in nearly double the numbers of the season seven premiere of Game of Thrones, as more Italians were interested in the impending war between the show's Camorra mafia families than in the adventures of Jon Snow and the rest of Westeros.

Gomorrah is a show unlike any other mafia story that came before it. Dispersing with any vestige of romance and nostalgia, the series is gritty, realistic and brutal in its depiction of life under the Camorra. Compared to a Gomorrah lead character, most Game of Thrones players live long and uneventful lives. The show's verisimilitude extends to the dialect the characters speak, a lingo transcribed from the mean streets of Naples that even native Italians have trouble deciphering without subtitles. This realism — warts and all — is a major part of the show's appeal. Sky has commissioned a fourth season and shooting is already underway.

Internationally, Gomorrah is shown in some 160 countries and airs on Sundance TV in the U.S. But while many in Naples are happy to see their city in the spotlight, not everyone is thrilled it's a mafia story that put it there.

“Naples wasn’t very happy with the success of Gomorrah internationally, to be related to the Camorra mafia in that strong way," says Ferdinand Dohna of Beta Films, the company that handles the global rights of the show. "People in Naples were proud that a big show (from their city) was out there, but they are very eager to show the world that there are different sides of Naples as well."

So far, the local backlash hasn't reached the level seen in 2001 when a group of Italian-Americans in Chicago sued Time Warner, unsuccessfully, claiming hit mob show, The Sopranos, produced by Time Warner subsidiary HBO, violated the Illinois Constitution by depicting an ethnic group, namely Italians and Italian-Americans, as "born criminals."

But back in the home country, there are signs Italians are growing weary of mafia shows.

Look at Suburra, a Rome-set take on the mob story, which is the first Italian original series from Netflix. The show, where organized crime bosses battle over prime real estate and are helped along by corrupt clergy and political officials, failed to secure the rabid fan base or critical acclaim of Gomorrah, despite a marketing campaign that blanketed the eternal city. Netflix has not released official viewing figures for Suburra.

Internationally, however, the mafia still kills with TV viewers.1992, an Italian political series likened to House of Cards and based on real-life political maneuverings in the early '90s, was a modest global success. As was Paolo Sorrentino’s The Young Pope, which opened a door to the mysterious machinery of the Vatican. But when it comes to Italian tales, the mob is still the go-to. It remains to be seen whether Italian producers can successfully flip the script and convince audiences there’s much more to their country than organized crime.

One Italian producer, Lux Vide CEO Luca Bernabei, is banking on a new genre he calls Mediterranean drama, hoping to emulate the success that Scandinavia had with its Nordic noir genre, through popular shows including The Killing, Borgen, Wallander and The Bridge.

“I strongly believe that my country is better than we represent ourselves,” says Bernabei. “This little country in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea is still a country full of culture, beauty, fashion, design, wine and good food. Italians watch mafia shows, but they don’t watch just that kind of show. I want to convey a different feeling of my country and the Mediterranean.”

One important series from Lux Vide showing the other side of Italy was Medici: Masters of Florence, about the famous Renaissance banking family that built classical Florence, a series that has also sold worldwide, available in the U.S. on Netflix.

“In Italy, the first season of Medici was watched by 8 million people on RAI, 30 percent of the market share. We were talking about a period 500 years ago, using international actors,” says Bernabei, explaining the Italian appetite for culture and history.

The show's second season, starring Sean Bean, Raoul Bova and Daniel Sharman, has just wrapped and will debut next year. It focuses on the rise of the younger Lorenzo de’ Medici, a patron of artists including Botticelli and Michelangelo. 

Lux Vide is betting on another banking story with The Devils, detailing how the American financial crisis affected weaker European countries including Greece, Portugal, Spain and Italy in 2012. “We will show this bloodless war that completely destroyed the middle classes in our countries,” says Bernabei. The series will center around a U.K. branch of a top American bank where the American president of the bank forces one of his traders to short European countries, contributing to the collapse. Shooting starts in London in March.

Crime, but not the traditional mob, is at the center of Human Trafficking, another hot new Mediterranean drama from Lux Vide. The show looks at one of the most explosive topics in Europe today — the flow of refugees across the Mediterranean to Europe — by examining the complex network of ruthless traffickers and the police trying to stop them.

“Don’t think that behind the boats there are just the boat captains. There are big bosses ruling these businesses carrying these people,” says Bernabei. “It’s a story that can be told to help us show that my country can’t face the problem alone. Thousands and thousands of people are dying on the sea. It’s a global problem. There are people becoming rich trading these people, who meanwhile are being treated worse than cattle.”

Costiera is another torn-from-the-headlines, but still mafia-less, series. Set in the beautiful tourist town of Positano on the Amalfi coast, at the luxury San Pietro Hotel, the series follows a James Bond-type hotel manager and an undercover CIA agent who acts as a problem fixer across the Mediterranean, whether its tracking down international arms deals, arranging meetings between world leaders or simply covering up the latest global sex scandal.

Lux Vide is also taking inspiration from Italy's history, following up their success with Medici with a new show tracing the life, art and inventions of Renaissance great Leonardo da Vinci. Another, as-of-yet-untitled series, will be set during ancient Rome and will focus on the global cultural impact of the Roman Empire. Bernabei believes that the world is long overdue for a new show on the Western Empire since the HBO series Rome wrapped ten years ago.

But while Italian TV is looking to expand its horizons, it's not leaving the mafia behind entirely. Instead, new mob-set dramas —like the hotly anticipated My Brilliant Friend— are looking to reinvent the mafia genre by shifting the perspective. A co-production between HBO and Italian public broadcaster RAI, My Brilliant Friend is, like Gomorrah, set in Naples and the Comorra mob forms a backdrop to the story. But the focus of the series, adapted from the best-selling book series by Elena Ferrante, is the personal relationship, over decades, between two women growing up together in the famous city.

The Hunter, also coming in 2018, shifts focus from the criminals to the law, depicting the true-life story of the Sicilian prosecutor who risked his life to fight organized crime. Set in Palermo in the 1990s, the series traces the period known as the "hunting season" which ultimately resulted in the arrests of three hundred mafiosi.

“It’s a kind of reaction to Gomorrah,” says Dohna, who produced The Hunter. “Gomorrah shows only the bad guys. The law doesn’t exist. There’s no sheriff. The Hunter shows the lives of the big mafia bosses as well as the lives of the policemen and prosecutors hunting them. The stories intertwine, getting closer and closer until our hero succeeds. It shows people that there is hope to fight against the mafia.” The show will air in springtime on RAI2, a public channel geared toward younger audiences.

“The mafia genre will not die out, of course, because it always makes good stories,” says Dohna. “They combine two genres: crime and family. What’s better than that? It will continue to reinvent itself as Gomorrah has done. But the core is the same: a family drama in a crime setting. That’s the secret.”