Is ‘Families of the Mafia’ MTV’s next ‘Jersey Shore?’ 

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The 2020s have brought back a resurgence of 1920s trends: a lack of minority rights, an economic collapse, a global pandemic and now, apparently, interest in the mafia. 

I was intrigued, to say the least, when I saw the first ads and previews for this show. As an Italian-American with some roots in, let’s just say “old” New York, this series brought up questions. Surely, the cast could not actually be connected to organized crime and safely star in a television show, right? Were secrets about to be broadcast that the FBI needed to know about? How could even the minors on the show be involved in the mob? Would it be as riddled with expletives and debauchery as other MTV favorites (“Teen Mom,” “Jersey Shore”)? I had to find out for myself. 

The series, which started airing on MTV on Thursday, April 9, focuses on four Staten Island families with connections to the mob: the Gravanos, the O’ Tooles, the LaRoccas and the Augustines. The show is a docuseries, filmed over the course of two years, that details the realities of what it’s like to live in a community strife with crime and imprisonment. These families navigate the divide between parents who want to provide better lives for their children, and those children who want to forge their own paths. 

Matriarch Karen Gravano is the daughter of infamous mafioso Sammy “The Bull” Gravano. The Bull was an underboss of the Gambino crime family, which was at the peak of its power in the ’80s and ’90s and depicted in the popular movie “The Godfather.” Sammy Gravano played a part in the take-down of John Gotti, the family’s boss, by testifying against him and other mobsters. After, he had been serving an 18-year sentence in jail. 

Viewers who are familiar with MTV reality television might recognize Karen Gravano from another show, “Mob Wives.” Her relationships with the other women of Staten Island is central to this series, as well. Karen and her daughter Karina spend the first episode of “Families of the Mafia” dealing with Sammy’s release from prison and reconnecting with him as a father and grandfather. 

Other familiar faces include the O’Toole family, who were featured on the short-lived MTV series, “Made in Staten Island,” which ended in 2019. Twins Taylor and Joe O’Toole are involved with the wrong crowd, and mother Jess hopes their father will intervene and be a stronger paternal influence in their lives. 

Gina LaRocca spent most of her son CP’s life in prison after dealing drugs in the ‘90s. CP now lives with his aunt and uncle, but mom Gina is fighting for custody of her son. Lisa and daughter Dennie Augustine, family friends of the Gravanos, are also trying to stay on the straight and narrow and avoid the allure of the Staten Island streets.

While there’s only been one episode of the series so far, it’s easy to see that these families are over the top. The conversations between family members and friends are exaggerated and so dramatic they seem scripted. The entire episode made the whole of Staten Island out to be an unchecked criminal, crooked, unlawful place, which is objectively false. 

The first episode proved mostly to be an introduction to the families, their dynamics and their individual problems, but the pacing was slow. After getting to know each family in turn, the only major drama was Karen being reunited with her father in Arizona. The build-up lasted the whole episode and the reunion was ultimately anticlimactic. If the rest of the series moves at the same slow pace and with the same over-exaggerated drama, I’m not sure if there will be enough suspense to hold viewers’ attention. 

I was disappointed, to say the least, that these families were only very distantly or even just allegedly connected to the mafia. Obviously producers would have been hard pressed to find a cast that was still directly involved in organized crime, but these families were dealing with much more modern, petty crime. I was more interested in the stories of the mob, and less about the stories of the troubled teens that were the spawn of the bosses of old. The title was perhaps a little misleading in this regard.

Leading lady Karen Gravano is also an executive producer of the show, causing me to question the integrity or “reality” of it all. 

Although none of this show seems truly realistic, the intergenerational relationships are relatable. The parents hoping for the best for their kids, the romantic relationships and the friendships on Staten Island allow for viewers to connect to an otherwise niche community and lifestyle. 

While the pilot of this show has left a lot to be desired, I understand the fans of MTV reality shows are not tuning in to the network’s flagship series for completely relatable content. Typically MTV viewers are after a more indulgent, incredible source of entertainment, proven by the meteoric popularity of shows like “Jersey Shore,” “Teen Mom,” “Catfish,” “My Super Sweet 16,” “The Hills” and others. “Families of the Mafia” might very well become the next in this long list of inane, overdramatized reality shows, and maybe that’s exactly what we all need right now. 

“Families of the Mafia” airs every Thursday at 9 p.m. EST on MTV. 

Rating: 3 out of 5 stars 

Thumbnail photo courtesy of @familiesofthemafia.

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Julia Mancini is the life editor for The Daily Campus. She can be reached via email at Julia.mancini@uconn.edu

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