'Gomorrah': TV Review

Gomorrah S02 Still - Publicity - H 2016
Courtesy of Sky Italia

Gomorrah S02 Still - Publicity - H 2016

The Italian 'Wire.'

Sundance TV brings the gritty Italian drama to American television with both familiar and unfamiliar rewards.

It won't come as a shock to anyone who has obsessively absorbed imported television in the last five years, but it's not just the Brits who can make (or exceed) American-quality television. All around the world there have been excellent dramatic imports.

On Aug. 24, Sundance TV finally gives the U.S. audience a chance to see Gomorrah, the 2014 Sky Italia drama series based on Roberto Saviano's 2006 nonfiction book on the Camorra, the Neapolitan crime syndicate, that was turned into a 2008 movie by Matteo Garrone.

But the Italian television series transcended all of that and proved to be an international hit (its second season came out in the spring of this year in Europe, and future seasons are planned). Sundance TV will give Americans with a willingness to read subtitles a glimpse into the dark greatness of the series.

That said, Gomorrah won't be a complete revelation because in many ways it pays homage to the best of American television, particularly HBO's The Wire.

But the execution of it all is foreign (in all ways) enough to make it unique and compelling on its own, a glimpse into another culture where things are done differently, characters and codes are inherently new but motivations, particularly of the baser kind, are universal.

Gomorrah is also exceptionally cinematic, from cramped interiors in the Naples slums to exhilarating car chases rapid-cut from rooftop to passenger-side to hood-mounted angles. There's an intimacy to family dinners and a freshness to remote Italian village scenes that add a layer of visual allure to storylines American television viewers will be very familiar with.

The series is set around Don Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Cerlino), whose bored but pampered wife Imma (Maria Pia Calzone) and spoiled and soft 20-year-old son Gennaro (aka "Genny") aren't ready to uphold the Savastano name. Genny's too busy being coddled by the otherwise ruthless Don Pietro, a very similar theme to the woes of Tony Soprano when it came to being both loving father and feared enforcer.

Don Pietro turns frequently to Ciro (Marco D'Amore) as both right-hand man and the one who will groom Genny to eventually take over the family, an event that grows more likely when an unfortunate (but creative) twist lands Don Pietro in jail just after he and Ciro and the rest of the crew have chased rival drug dealer Conte (Marco Palvetti) into seclusion.

The unexpected jailing causes a power vacuum that sets up the rest of Gomorrah in increasingly thrilling ways. What makes the story work beyond the assured pacing and fine acting all around is the familiarity of the concept — Ciro is loyal but not in charge, Genny has no respect from the rest of Don Pietro's crew, and the Italian drug business is too lucrative to survive any break in the chain of supply and demand, which is attracting rivals to step up; but also the directions Gomorrah goes in that neither The Wire or The Sopranos chose.

Gomorrah is dark — both in tone and how it was shot — and it requires concentration on the subtitles, but it's also completely riveting and worth the effort as Italy steps up, via Sundance TV, to prove we don't have a lock on quality dramas.

Cast: Fortunato Celino, Marco D'Amore, Maria Pia Calzone

Airs Wednesdays at 10 p.m. on Sundance TV.