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Like the restaurant of the same name, A&E’s new reality series Wahlburgers puts Mark and Donnie Wahlberg‘s family front and center. While the famous brothers have a stake in the business, it is run day-to-day by their older brother, Paul, “the talented one.” Wahlberg matriarch Alma, always at the ready with strong opinions, also is heavily featured and doesn’t mind fueling her children’s competition on who really is the favorite son.
Wahlburgers focuses a great deal on the camaraderie and squabbles among the brothers (whose other siblings do not appear on the show), and the first two episodes are packed with anecdotes about growing up in their old Dorchester neighborhood in Boston. Donnie talks about eating “welfare cheese,” Mark’s nutty childhood friends still hang around the place, and when Paul complains about the hand-me-downs he’s wearing in an old photo, Alma shakes her head emphatically and corrects, “Only school clothes were hand-me-downs. Easter, we took out a loan.”
PHOTOS: Mark Wahlberg’s Road From Movie Star to Mogul
Much of the Wahlbergs’ appeal is related to their rags-to-riches story, and A&E was right to want to produce a series that focused on the source of this down-home Beantown interest, instead of disastrous knockoffs like the forgettable Southie Rules. Donnie and Mark agree that while their upbringing was often difficult — and “one of us was usually locked up or running away” — dinner time was always a positive experience, and that’s something they hope to bring to the restaurant.
In many ways, Wahlburgers can feel like one long advertisement for that growing chain, but the family and their restaurant are also obviously inextricably linked. Some of the series’ more sitcom-like moments, though, include a parade of “colorful characters” from the family’s old neighborhood, including the original Johnny Drama (who shows just how right Entourage‘s Kevin Dillon played him), and a food-related daredevil of sorts, known as Nacho. Jenny McCarthy, Donnie’s girlfriend, also drops in early in the season to meet Alma, and convince Paul to name a burger after her. “I was a little starstruck,” the gentle and focused Paul admits sheepishly.
There is a little bit of charm to Wahlburgers, but ultimately, only a true love of the Wahlbergs will keep viewers interested in their comings-and-goings. Unfortunately, there’s nothing about the series’ style or format that makes it stand out among other family docudramas. And while sometimes the interactions feel natural, often they are noticeably stilted; there’s a keen sense of the proceedings being carefully crafted. But as the family knows, their appeal is still a driving factor for a certain niche audience, both regarding their restaurant and the show. It is obvious, as Mark says: When it comes to the Wahlbergs, “it always comes down to family.”
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