Ellen Gray: 'Amish Mafia'? Seriously?

Posted: December 12, 2012

* AMISH MAFIA. 10:30 p.m. Tuesday, Discovery Channel. Moves to 9 p.m. Wednesdays the following night.

"THE AMISH church denies the existence of the Amish Mafia," reads the disclaimer at the beginning of the Discovery Channel's latest "reality" venture, "Amish Mafia."

So it must be real, right?

Because why else would the TV-shunning sect bother to deny its existence?

If you're OK with that logic - or couldn't get enough of TLC's equally contrived "Breaking Amish" - you're going to love "Amish Mafia," which is from the same producers as the TLC hit and purports to expose the doings of a small group of men in Lancaster County who allegedly grease the buggy wheels for Amish who run into problems they can't handle themselves.

"I'm just a guy who is willing to do stuff for people," says ringleader Lebanon Levi, who, while not exactly camera-shy, also denies the existence of an Amish Mafia (as do the Lancaster police).

Esther begs to differ.

Sister to one of Levi's younger henchmen, John - who gets around on a kick bike that doesn't exactly scream "made man" - she claims to be from an Old Order Amish family but doesn't explain how participation on a TV show fits in with that.

It's Esther, a Janice Soprano in plain clothing who'd like to see her brother move up in the organization, who does a good deal of the talking in the show's first episode, explaining that "Levi is the cops. He is the courthouse. He is the bank. And he is the insurance company."

All of which may be true. Or not. Technically, Levi can't be considered Amish, having never been baptized into a church that doesn't count adults as members otherwise. One of his associates, who claims to be Mennonite, isn't just a designated driver. He's a confrontational type with an impressive gun collection and an itchy trigger finger.

I'm not even sure the name Levi's using in the show is his actual name, given that in one instance, a lawyer discussing the man's criminal record - "multiple acts of disorderly conduct" - is bleeped when he appears to be mentioning the full name.

And Discovery notes that "to ensure the safety of innocent Amish, select re-enactments of events must be used."

Which leaves us to guess just how much - or little - of "Amish Mafia" is real and how much is an elaborate practical joke being played on the ever-gullible "English."

What's meant to be interesting, about the show and about most of the TV shows about the Amish, is that it depicts (or sometimes merely talks about) people behaving in ways we've been told the Amish generally don't: in this case, sashaying around with guns, driving cars, extorting money, gambling and visiting prostitutes.

And that's just the first episode.

Though some of Levi's activities appear to relate to what's said to be his handling of the fund the Amish use instead of insurance, some of it's just meddling, as when a woman reports that she fears one of her neighbors is having an adulterous affair and the "Mafia" gets involved.

"They've got nothing better to do because they don't have TV to watch," one of Levi's associates says of the "gossiping neighbors" who keep them busy.

There's a shameless attempt to link the group's rise to the aftermath of the 2006 schoolhouse killings in Nickel Mines, Pa., opening the door for Discovery to use old footage of NBC News' Brian Williams and Ann Curry to add a touch of legitimacy.

But that hardly explains Levi's Cadillac.

Like the cow-patty bingo the men play at one point - is this really Lancaster's answer to bocce? - "Amish Mafia" may be intermittently entertaining, but it doesn't pass the smell test.


Email: graye@phillynews.com

Phone: 215-854-5950

On Twitter: @elgray

Blog: EllenGray.tv

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