'The Italian Americans': TV Review

Courtesy of Jamie Eisenberg
 Deftly explores the real Italian-American experience from 1890 to today

From paisans to politicians, Sacco to Sinatra, Capra to Cuomo, the Italian American experience

I’ve always loved my last name. I can remember mastering how to spell it in kindergarten and thinking, “Well there’s nothing left to learn.”  I mean what could be harder than a 10 letter last name with that many vowels?

As I got older I realized people associated things with my name. They would ask me if I loved to cook (I don’t mind it but love is a strong word). Somewhere around high school I realized if I told people my dad was in the mafia they would actually believe me (just to be clear, he's not). And then there was my first job out of college where the executive director wondered if I had a statue of Mary in a bathtub on my front lawn like all the other Italians (I didn't and hadn't ever even seen anything like that).

As a second-generation American, watching The Italian Americans, the four-part series which spans 1890 to the present day, was a fascinating experience. I recalled the stories my parents and grandparents told me. After I finished watching, I called my mom and dad and peppered them with questions about my ancestors.

But even those who don’t have such a personal connection to the series will be captivated by the documentary. As narrator Stanley Tucci intones, “Italian-American identity has largely become a product of popular culture.” Still, the series delves far beyond the aspects of Italian-American culture that are so prevalent. Yes our fascination with the mob, the legend of Sacco and Vanzetti, Frank Sinatra’s friendship with President Kennedy and the cultural impact of Joe DiMaggio are all deftly explored.

But the series also dives into the lesser-known stories of the Italian experience. Union leader Arturo Giovannitti's leadership of the 1912 textile strike in Lawrence, Massachusetts, changed worker’s rights throughout the country. During World War II, 600,000 Italian-Americans, including DiMaggio’s parents, were deemed to be “enemy aliens.” Over 10,000 were forced to evacuate their homes. “Their sons were off fighting a war and they didn’t know if they were going to be safe at home,” author Geoffrey Dunn explains.

Much of Italian heritage has been lost as immigrants struggled to assimilate. Historian Robert Orsi tells of protestant social workers trying to change the way Italian-Americans raised their families on a very intimate level from what they had for breakfast to how they swaddled their babies.

Actor John Turturro recalls how his mother was forbidden to speak Sicilian by Irish nuns. “She was hit if she spoke Sicilian,” he says. Writer Gay Talese remembers being mortified by his school lunches and longing for the white bread ham sandwiches of his peers. “I always wished I was more like these freckled faced kids,” he says. “They were the true Americans. . . . They really made you feel very much conflicted with who I was and who my parents were.”

The final hour of the series focuses on the “breakthrough generation,” children of immigrants who reached the highest levels of American society. U.S. Supreme Court Associate Justice Antonin Scalia discusses the impact of being the first Italian-American ever appointed to the Supreme Court. “When my confirmation was final, I got cartloads of mail from Italian-Americans just expressing their pride in my appointment. I had no idea that it meant that much,” Scalia says.

A considerable amount of time is spent on Governor Mario Cuomo and his iconic keynote address at the 1984 Democratic National Convention. “I felt like finally the real Italians were being shown to the world,” author Laurie Fabiano says. The series explores Cuomo’s potential to be the first Italian-American president and his ultimate decision not to run. “Many wondered if even in the 1990s the country just wasn’t ready for an Italian-American president,” Tucci says. And while the late Governor Cuomo, who passed away January 1 of this year, may not have been available for interviews, it would have been nice to hear from his sons, Governor Andrew Cuomo or CNN reporter Chris Cuomo about their father’s decision.

The commentators, especially ones like the passionate Talese and Fabiano, truly make the story of Italian-Americans come alive. But strangely, The Italian Americans makes little use of The Sopranos creator David Chase. He’s quoted briefly when the series discusses The Godfather trilogy, calling it “the greatest movie ever made,” but otherwise isn’t seen. And the series spends no time on his hit HBO drama which is largely regarded as launching the golden age of television we are currently experiencing.

Citing shows such as Mob Wives Chicago, Jersey Shore and Real Housewives of New Jersey,  Fabiano laments that the majority of current Italian-American culture is created by the media. “What is considered Italian today is that small slice of Italian-American life that has been blown out of proportion and made into a caricature and what’s real is getting lost,” Fabiano says.

The Italian Americans keeps what’s real alive.