Mob Wives puts the real in reality TV
You may think VH1’s ‘Mob Wives’ is just another copycat ‘Real Housewives’ show, but as real life intrudes into the production, it has become the most real reality show on TV.
I have been known to watch a few of VH1’s trashy celebrity reality shows in the past (when they were dubbed CelebReality by the network), but I had never really tuned in to the show Mob Wives for a very simple reason: I had no idea who these people were or why they had their own show. It wasn’t like The Surreal Life, with a cast of D-list celebrities cooped up in a house carrying on for several weeks, and it wasn’t a competition show for D-list celebrities who either needed to lose weight or deal with their addictions. So why should I tune in to see loud, brash, “Noo Yawkers” (Staten Island to be exact) yelling at and fighting with each other?
Oddly enough, it was Joel McHale and The Soup that made me want to watch with their hilarious clips of someone named Big Ang featured on a weekly basis. After about three weeks, I finally scheduled the show on my DVR and got caught up with the first four episodes of season two. And I was hooked … even though Big Ang wasn’t even a core member of the Mob Wives cast (although she eventually got her own spin-off show between seasons two and three).
I suddenly found myself drawn into this shady underworld lifestyle of the “wives” — a term used very loosely since most are divorced or separated by prison walls, or are actually born into “the lifestyle.” The Queen Bee of the show is Renee Graziano, daughter of Anthony Graziano (of the Bonanno crime family) and ex-wife of Junior Pagan, who is probably the loudest of the bunch and likes to yell “do you know who I am?” when people don’t know who she is. The rest of the core cast of friends, enemies and frenemies are Karen Gravano (Sammy “The Bull” Gravano’s daughter), Drita D’Avanzo (wife of Lee D’Avanzo, who also happens to be Karen’s ex-boyfriend … awkward), and Carla Facciolo, wife (soon to be ex) of Joe Ferragamo. Joining the cast in season two were Ramona Rizzo (Karen’s “cousin” and granddaughter of Benjamin Ruggiero, whom Al Pacino played in Donnie Brasco), and Angela “Big Ang” Raiola, niece of Salvatore “Sally Dogs” Lombardi and owner of the Drunken Monkey bar. Season three also added Love Majewski, who has never been married but has a habit of stabbing, poisoning or shooting her underworld boyfriends.
The show basically follows the daily lives of these women and their inevitable fighting matches (you need a chart to keep track of who hates whom from season to season) which are not your basic Real Housewives table-flipping, screaming matches. These women throw down hard, fists flying, hair pulling, knock down, drag out fights. In between the physical drama, the interpersonal relationships are fascinating because these are people who have known each other for years, some from childhood; no pre-fab, television relationships. They all have history together, and that’s what makes Mob Wives one of the more realistic reality shows.
I’m sure some of the situations are planned in advance to make sure permits and permissions are secured before shooting begins, but a funny thing happened at the end of season two that could not have possibly been “scripted” in advance — Renee’s ex had been wanting to get back into her life to spend time with their son A.J. (and this had been going on since season one, which I found even more fascinating to watch after the fact) and Renee was going back and forth about letting him into their lives again. She finally relented, for A.J.’s sake, and even found herself falling back in love with him. After slipping out of the house one morning without a goodbye, Renee found a cryptic note from him … and then came the phone call. Renee’s father and other “family members” had been arrested because Junior had become “a rat” for the Feds to save his own hide. This turn of events made for some truly gripping television as Renee slowly fell apart before our eyes while her friends tried to rally around her and A.J. seemed to get further away. TV viewers were really getting a look into someone’s life collapsing around them while the cameras rolled.
What we learned at the start of season three was that Renee had plunged into a nightmare of self-medication that really turned her into a monster, so much so that by the start of the season she and best friend Carla were no longer on speaking terms. But, again, reality got in the way as Renee finally realized what she had become and decided to check into rehab in Miami (now A.J. has to realize that addiction isn’t something you can simply stop). On the most recent episode, things got even more real as Superstorm Sandy hit Staten Island during production and the cameras were there to capture all of the devastation. The episode dealing with the aftermath was heart-wrenching and emotional (and somehow, none of the main cast members’ homes were severely damaged) as the women stepped out of their “characters” and became real people, going door to door to see if anyone needed help, delivering cleaning supplies to their friends and offering them places to stay, and packing up trash bags full of clothing to donate to shelters. Big Ang prepared meals and delivered them to a shelter, organized delivery of clothing and baby supplies, and began planning a benefit to help those on the island who lost pretty much everything. It was a gripping first person account of the destruction, and I had tears in my eyes through the entire episode.
Between Junior’s betrayal of his family, which was bad but probably made the network giddy because of the drama that caused, and the storm, the producers of Mob Wives have been able to produce what I consider to be the most real of the reality shows currently on television. I’m sure it won’t take long to get back to the fist fights and hair pulling, but these incidents have shown that not all reality TV has to be frivolous and showing us the worst of people so that we can feel better about ourselves. I hope that Mob Wives can uphold the standards that they have set and continue to deliver some gripping television. As far as the spin-off, Mob Wives: Chicago? Fuggedaboutit. Stick with the Staten Island crew.