‘American Gypsies' debuts on NatGeo

The FamilyPhotograph by National Geographic Channels/ Shadow Stick ProductionsMeet the Johns family, one of Manhattan's most prominent Romani, or "Gypsy" families. In each episode of this new series, cameras document their efforts to preserve Romani customs amid the vices of the city, while upholding their family's power in the community and expanding their psychic shop empire. Front Row (L-R): Tina and Bob, Sr. Back Row (L-R): Nicky, Joey, Jack, Bobby, and Erik — Tina and Bob's five sons.
The FamilyPhotograph by National Geographic Channels/ Shadow Stick ProductionsMeet the Johns family, one of Manhattan's most prominent Romani, or "Gypsy" families. In each episode of this new series, cameras document their efforts to preserve Romani customs amid the vices of the city, while upholding their family's power in the community and expanding their psychic shop empire. Front Row (L-R): Tina and Bob, Sr. Back Row (L-R): Nicky, Joey, Jack, Bobby, and Erik — Tina and Bob's five sons.
Posted: July 18, 2012

AMERICAN GYPSIES. 9 p.m. Tuesday, National Geographic Channel.

FOR MEMBERS of a supposedly secretive culture, the family in the National Geographic Channel's newest series, "American Gypsies," appears remarkably ready for its close-up.

What part of Roma tradition, after all, covers letting "reality" TV into the personal and business lives of people so mistrustful of the outsiders they refer to as "gaje" that they don't want their children meeting them in public schools, much less marrying them?

And yet Robert Johns Sr., his wife, Tina, and their five burly sons appear so open about everything from their family business of fortune-telling — sorry, "psychic healing" — to their internal disagreements about tradition that I have to wonder if a steady diet of unscripted television hasn't changed the way even people outside the American mainstream now view their relationship with what once seemed an impenetrable box in our living rooms.

Now nearly everyone not only expects to be on television at some point, but also knows what kind of behavior's expected when the cameras roll.

Not that the producers of "American Gypsies" (who include the original "Karate Kid," Ralph Macchio) had to teach the Johns boys how to shout. I'm guessing that, like members of most large families, they learned that one early.

But "reality" TV thrives on conflict and it's Bobby Johns, the patriarch's namesake and seemingly the most assimilated of the brothers, who's precipitating most of it in the first couple of episodes.

At first, it appears he's merely flouting the tradition that would make his 14-year-old daughter, Amanda, a bride long before her 17th birthday and a full-time for-tune-teller maybe even before that.

"In the gypsy culture, every woman's a psychic," insists Amanda's grandmother, Tina, who's getting ready to pass along some of the secrets of the trade when Bobby suggests his daughters might have other ambitions.

"I think I want to try acting," says Amanda, whose father's so eager to support her ambition that the next thing we know, he's signed both her and her sister, Vivian, up for acting lessons and is scheduling appointments to get head shots and meet with agents, even as the rest of his family fumes.

Could he be auditioning for a role himself on a show about stage dads?

Where "American Gypsies" shines — and it really does shine here and there — is in the glimpses we get of the internal system of justice that's developed among a people who don't trust government, and family rituals like the "red-dress ceremony" with which the Johns family welcomes its newest member.

Unlike TLC's "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding," Bobby Johns told reporters in January, "this is much more than just a wedding. This is about our family, our culture, our beliefs, our traditions. You're going to get a peek behind the curtain that you've never been able to see before."

Contact Ellen Gray at 215-854-5950 or graye@phillynews.com or follow on Twitter @elgray. Read her blog at EllenGray.tv.

|
|
|
|
|