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Attention reality television viewers: there’s a new contender to the real housewife throne.
Produced by Ben Silverman and Harvey Weinstein (whose small screen production credits include Project Runway and Models of the Runway), VH1’s startling, deeply engaging new series Mob Wives has thrown down the gauntlet.
It doesn’t hurt that the four heroines in this classical drama have interpersonal ties to some of the most reputed New York mafia figures. The cast of real life Carmela Sopranos includes Rene Graziano, daughter of former Bonanno crime family consigliere Anthony Graziano; Karen Gravano, daughter of Gambino turncoat Salvatore “Sammy the Bull” Gravano; Drita D’avanzo, wife of Bannanno and Colombo crime figure Lee D’avanzo, and Carla Facciolo, wife of stock market swindler Joey Ferragamo.
With their men folk serving hard time for crimes ranging from conspiracy to commit murder to drug running to racketeering, the women are left behind to raise kids, pay bills, swill tequila, and assess the mob’s ruinous impact on their own emotional lives.
Such rich subject matter would, in itself, be the envy of any reality show creator, but Mob Wives reaches near-Shakespearean levels of conflict as Karen leaves her witness relocation lair in Arizona to return to her old Staten Island stomping grounds in order to pen a book about growing up mafia. It’s a plan with no small amount of risk considering how many lives, including her own, “Sammy the Bull’s” testimony ultimately upended.
“My father always taught me don’t be a tattle tale, so when he cooperated I didn’t understand why he was doing it. I felt betrayed,” Karen explains in a one of the show’s numerous one-on-one interview asides, adding. “It was like my whole life was ripped out from underneath me. My entire community turned their backs on me.”
News of Karen’s return doesn’t sit well with some of her old friends, including Renee, whose own famous father had ordered her to cut all ties with the Gavano’s.
“We’re brought up on honor, respect, loyalty,” Renee says in dialogue that might as well be lifted straight from Goodfellas. “You never rat, no matter what. A rat is someone who doesn’t mind their f***ing business, and they get involved with the cops.”
Drita and Carla argue that Karen shouldn’t be blamed for the sins of her father, and, without telling Renee, invite Karen to attend Carla’s 35th birthday party at a local night spot.
As the tension mounts, the show returns to a silly visual cliché, capturing the arrival of each woman at the restaurant with grainy, surveillance-style snap shots. By this point in the drama, that treatment feels gratuitous, an insecure reminder that, hey audience, don’t forget, we’re dealing with the world of organized crime! The fact is, however, that the story lines are so engrossing that such gimmickry unnecessary.
With all their historical baggage, the inevitable melee at the restaurant that follows has significantly more heft than any of the brawls featured on Jersey Shore. The violence here also feels much more dangerous. After watching Drita pound a heavy bag, pump iron, and boast of breaking faces in past fights, when she unexpectedly rounds on Renee, you feel a chill. These women are the real deal: maybe a bit too real.
In a way, that’s the underlying question for the women of Mob Wives: can they break free from their old lives, or are they doomed to keep letting the past roll on and become their future?
While Carla declares she’s through with Joey and his ilk, Drita is conflicted about waiting out Lee’s latest jail term. Having been disowned by her father for taking up with the mobster in the first place, is she ready to disown him now that he’s paying for his crimes? Renee, who still refers to herself as a “mafia princess,” remains enamored with the gangster lifestyle but is desperate to keep her 16-year-old from sliding into it. And despite calling out her own father for his murderous past, Karen’s appetite for confrontation may also be a sign that she’s not really all that rehabilitated.
As we learned from The Sopranos, the wives and children of mafiosos can be every bit as compelling as the gangsters themselves. Thanks to its camera-ready cast of extraordinarily real women, Mob Wives’ version is no less affecting. As for those other real housewives franchises, their endless squabbles and social climbing antics are rendered rather trivial after you watch the first five minutes of Mob Wives. The real action, it turns out, is on Staten Island.
Air date: VH1, Sunday, Apr. 17 8/7c
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