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A&E’s new docu-series Southie Rules, about a South Boston clan looking to preserve their way of life, is the latest in a long list of niche-neighborhood shows that run the gambit from documentary-approach appreciation to uncomfortable exploitation. On that latter end, one reason (of many) a series like MTV’s Buckwild is so unfortunate is because the cast doesn’t seem in on the joke. But the cast of Southie Rules, who have some shades of the Jersey Shore, seem very self-aware.
Like Jersey Shore, the guise of documentary is quickly dropped in favor of joshing along with the cast as they play up to stereotypes. In a meta-joke throughout the show, when the cast members’ names appear underneath them in the confessionals, their job or distinction (mother, best friend, live-in girlfriend) change each time to things like “the enabler,” “the critic,” “sells sex toys to nuns,” “inexplicably confident.” While it’s funny, it also shows an irreverence for the subjects. At the same time, the subjects in question seem to love the effect.
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While the gentrification of South Boston may be a real issue for locals who can no longer afford to pay the rising costs of living in their neighborhood, reality doesn’t seem to be a huge part of Southie Rules. The encroachment of yuppie culture (defined by the show as outsiders that are causing a rise in real estate prices and $5 coffee stores) is set up as the main villain of the series, yet in the screener episode (number six in the series), there is nary a yuppie, or yuppie-situation, to be seen.
Though the premise seems plausible (ten people, only three with jobs, living under one roof in a three-story house they’ve had for generations, which leads to fights for time in the one bathroom with a mirror), the interactions among the family members, their spouses and their girlfriends feel forced.
For example, in the preview episode, the family plays “bill roulette” where everyone is responsible for paying whatever bill they pick from the pile. In order to pay off an $800 heating bill, eldest son Jon is suddenly and bizarrely told by his brother’s friend to go and strip for a friend of the family’s bachelorette party (a party used in another set up regarding catering). As soon as he decides to go full-monty, his mother Camille happens to open the door just as he whips off his pants, in a slow-mo “oh my God!” moment. The camera is positioned exactly in a way to see Jon (without seeing anything) whipping off his pants in the direction of the door just as Camille steps through. Coincidence? As she drags him home he says he was still able to get all of the money for the bill. Apparently impromptu stripping pays well in Southie.
The show may not be quite as controversial as TLC’s Breaking Amish, but moments like these help reinforce the feeling that the cast are more characters, or at least trying to be, than real people. The thing is, there are genuinely interesting characters in the brood, particularly Camille’s daughter Leah, who runs the show and keeps everyone is line with her firm but loving approach. Less interesting is a bike ride two of the cast members take to deliver meatballs, which devolves into a meatball fight that destroys the order without consequence. “Good thing I made extra and found someone else who wants to buy them,” Leah says offhandedly when they return. Good thing indeed.
A&E has come out with some reality hits over the past few years, including the addictive series Hoarders and the gritty Intervention, but Southie Rules feels more like a show that is better suited elsewhere. Whether viewers care or not about the level of reality in Southie Rules is up for grabs, but what can be said for sure is that it cheapens what could potentially have been an affecting show. There are aspects of Southie Rules that are fun, but ultimately it feels as hollow as an emptied tin of meatballs.
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