'Mob Wives' show far from the Mafia reality

The wiseguys' gals lift their glasses in "Mob Wives," which VH1 describes as a "docu-soap." As a marketing concept, at least, the Mafia grows.
The wiseguys' gals lift their glasses in "Mob Wives," which VH1 describes as a "docu-soap." As a marketing concept, at least, the Mafia grows.
Posted: April 10, 2011

They're calling it Mob Wives, although Mob Women might be a better name.

The VH1 reality show, which will debut at 8 p.m. next Sunday, features the wives and daughters of wiseguys, including Karen Gravano, whose father, Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano, is one of the most infamous turncoats in underworld history.

Ten episodes of the series, set in Staten Island, N.Y., are scheduled, and if the first is any indication, we're in for lots of shouting, cursing, and drama.

On its website, VH1 describes the series as a "docu-soap" that follows the women as they "pick up the pieces and carry on while their husbands or fathers do time for mob-related activities."

A former organized-crime prosecutor who has viewed the promos calls the show "Jersey Shore on steroids."

Both descriptions are apt.

Mob Wives is the latest attempt to commercialize what was once - but clearly is no longer - a secret society.

Though it is in demise as an underworld power, the Mafia, La Cosa Nostra, the mob, is emerging as a marketing concept.

"It started with The Godfather" in 1972, said Steve O'Connell, executive creative director at Red Tettemer & Partners, a Philadelphia marketing firm. "The mob has become a brand. . . . It's not what organized crime is but what people think it is."

"If this were a show about farmers, nobody would watch," added Bernard "Berny" Brownstein, chairman and chief creative officer at Brownstein Group, another Philadelphia marketing firm.

Bruce Chadwick, who teaches a class on the mob and media at Rutgers University, cut to the chase.

"You can't go wrong offering the public shows about either the Kennedys or the Mafia," he said.

Mob Wives builds on the success of cable TV's The Real Housewives franchise and adds an underworld twist. In some ways, it picks up where Growing Up Gotti left off. That series, which centered on the life of John Gotti's daughter Victoria and her three intensely hair-gelled teenage sons, purported to show what life was like for the family of America's most notorious mob boss.

This time we get a look at four women in somewhat similar circumstances. Like Gotti, it's likely to be less than illuminating.

The Mafia, after all, is a men's club. Women are wives, mothers, daughters, and girlfriends but never members.

Karen Gravano and the others - Renee Graziano, Drita D'avanzo, and Carla Facciolo - may or may not know the inner workings of a mob family. But what they are willing to say is a different matter. And that, apparently, will provide part of the drama.

The series is built around Gravano's return from Phoenix to Staten Island and her attempt to reconnect with friends in the aftermath of her father's testimony - which, among other things, brought down Gotti, who died in prison.

Friendships, old romantic relationships, and organized-crime connections are mingled with interactions of the volatile quartet, who are more than willing to express themselves.

At least one appears to have had extensive facial work. Another has the sweater-popping physique often associated with breast enhancement.

The debut centers on a confrontation between Gravano and Graziano, whose father is a jailed leader of the Bonanno crime family.

There's lots of makeup, jewelry, and leather, and a house call from a "spray-tanning consultant" who preps two of the women for a birthday party where Gravano and Graziano finally square off. There's also shouting and finger-pointing, and the phrase "Mafia bitch" becomes part of the conversation.

Week 2 offers more of the same, with all four mixing it up and someone's hair getting pulled.

"Hair-pulling always attracts an audience," said Chadwick. And so, apparently, does the mob.

Danny Provenzano, nephew of the late North Jersey mob leader Anthony "Tony Pro" Provenzano, had a recurring role on Bravo's Real Housewives of New Jersey and is in discussions, as they say in the trade, about developing his own reality show.

Over lunch last week in New Brunswick, N.J., where two female patrons stopped by his table to praise his work on the cable show, Provenzano talked about the mob as a marketing tool.

Provenzano, who did more than five years in prison on a racketeering charge, wrote, directed, and starred in the movie This Thing of Ours while under indictment. And after his jail stint, he jumped back into the spotlight with his gig as mentor and protector of Danielle on the overwhelmingly Italian Housewives.

He describes himself as a 21st-century wiseguy who understands the commercial potential of the organization. Among other things, he has talked about developing a fashion line that he wants to call Wiseguy Wear.

"I am all for prime-time Cosa Nostra," he said. "But I have to draw the line at a rat's daughter."

The market doesn't make that distinction.

Michael Franzese, a former Colombo family leader who became an informant, is still cashing in on his mob ties. His most recent endeavor: a book titled I'll Make You an Offer You Can't Refuse: Insider Business Tips From a Former Mob Boss.

The current Mafia-mania is an extension of America's fascination with the outlaw, a phenomenon that dates back to the days of Jesse James and Billy the Kid, say marketing experts.

Rap and hip-hop artists, some of whom have a foot in the drug underworld, celebrate another group of outlaws and use their brand to sell clothes, perfume, champagne, and more.

But marketing experts such as O'Connell say the Mafia's allure reaches further than rap's.

Books, movies, and reality TV assume that most Americans have a frame of reference when it comes to La Cosa Nostra. The secret society of the so-called "men of honor" is no longer secret and may never have been very honorable.

"Old-time mobsters like Angelo Bruno have to be rolling over in their graves," said Louis Pichini, a former federal prosecutor who sent dozens of wiseguys, including mob boss Nicodemo "Little Nicky" Scarfo, to jail.

Pichini, who offered the "Jersey Shore on steroids" description of Mob Wives, said he was disappointed by the portrayal of Italian Americans in reality-TV shows as buffoons and loudmouths.

The behavior he sees on The Real Housewives of New Jersey; Jersey Shore, with its self-proclaimed guidos and guidettes; and now Mob Wives does not reflect the Italian American experience, said Pichini, who grew up in Reading surrounded by his hardworking Italian parents and grandparents.

The term cafone comes to mind, he said, referring to the Italian word for an uncouth and unmannered individual.

"You just want to scream at the TV," Pichini said. "There's this angst that I feel . . . although agita might be a better word."

But he said his frustration was tempered by the fact that reality TV, in general, relied on cafone. Vulgarity knows no ethnic boundaries.

A series like Jersey Shore is more a reflection on the taste of the American public than it is a portrayal of Italian American culture.

Marketing executives say much the same thing about the Mafia media and merchandise.

"They want to make money," Brownstein said. "That's the reality of reality TV. . . . Ka-ching!"


Contact staff writer George Anastasia at 856-779-3846 or ganastasia@phillynews.com.

 

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