VH1 attempts to challenge the "Real Housewives" throne by expanding its mafia-centric franchise into the Windy City.
By 2011, The Real Housewives empire had spread itself conspicuously thin with formualic spinoffs stretching from Beverly Hills to Manhattan. True, cliques of social-climbing, bourgeois women playing out their often petty dramas while the cameras rolled had proven to be a lucrative enterprise, but by the time the Miami franchise debuted last year — let's face it — the whole endeavor was feeling a tad stale.
To the rescue came Mob Wives, VH1's gritty challenger to the Housewives throne, which infused a whole new level of violence, passion and heartbreak into the gender-centric genre. Created by Jennifer Graziano, the daughter of Bonanno crime family consigliere Anthony Graziano, the show's characters were as vivid and conflicted as those found on The Sopranos or in Goodfellas. Comprised of Drita D'Avanzo, Renee Graziano, Karen Gravano and Carla Facciolo, the original cast was unlike any found in reality television at the time. But because Hollywood has never learned the virtue of leaving well enough alone, two highly rated seasons of Mob Wives have brought us the invitable expansion of this new fledgling empire.
Mob Wives: Chicago, like all five of the Real Housewives sequels that followed Orange County, doesn't try to tinker with the original recipe. In fact, it apes every opening move of the first series save for the change of setting. As with its forerunner, the premiere episode introduces us to a cast of brassy, foul-mouthed, mafia-connected women before tossing them together with an ample amout of tequila in a bar to see how long it will take for a fight to break out.
"I may be a nice girl, the average mom rolling her grocery cart down the street, but there's a bitch in here if you bring her out," boasts Christina Scoleri, the daughter of one-time mob thief Raymond Janek.
All too happy to help bring out Scoleri's inner bitch are Renee Fecarotta Russo, a pretty blond with a boob job whose uncle, "Big John" Fecarotta, was said to be a loan collecter and hit man for the mob, and Pia Rizza, a stripper and mother whose dirty cop dad testified against his mafia bosses before disappearing into the witness protection program.
"People say I'm a judgmental bitch, but I'm about class, respect and loyalty," a gesticulating Russo says in a cut away shot. "And if you don't show me that, well then we're gonna have a f***ing problem."
Among Russo's problems is Rizza's chosen line of work, and, because no self-respecting mob wife (not a literal description, mind you) could ever be accused of shyness, she makes it known that she intends to tell her as much before the conclusion of episode one.
"I try to keep it real, so I think now is a pretty good time to tell Pia how I feel about her," Russo says.
The oddball center of gravity of the cast is Nora Schweihs, daughter of notorious mob hit man Frank "The German" Schweihs. If the conceit of Mob Wives Chicago is to be believed, Schweihs has gotten the old gang back together again after returning to town in a quest to dig up father's grave to make sure his body resides in the casket.
"Nora gets a bad rap, because a lot of people think she's f***ing nuts," Rizza, who has known Schweihs for more than a dozen years, explains.
Mob Wives Chicago's stellar production team — which includes Graziano, Bob and Harvey Weinstein, Meryl Poster, Ben Silverman, Jimmy Fox, Banks Tarver, Ken Druckerman, Nina Diaz and Jack Tarantino — obligingly fill out the cast with Leah Desimone, the short-fused daughter of alleged mob associate William "Wolf" DeSimone. Showing little patience for the behind the back gossip that typifies the show, DeSimone offers a near constant stream of violent invectives.
"Who wants a friend like that?" DeSimone tells Scoleri while shopping for clothes. "If somebody treated me that way I would hit them in the head with a shovel."
Preoccupied with amping up the animosity among its cast before the aforementioned bar blowout, Mob Wives Chicago doesn't feel nearly as organic as the original show. Instead of delving into conflicted feelings about the mafia that made Graziano and Gravano such interesting characters on Mob Wives, we are given gratuitous plot lines and a pacing that makes the show feel more like Basketball Wives LA.But the biggest problem for the Chicago version is that we've now seen this type of character before, and it feels like the new cast has spent a fair amount of time watching the first show so as to perfect their tough girl schtick. While Chicago may not be the last Mob Wives spinoff we'll see before this juggernaut is laid to rest, its staying power will require tapping into something new from its characters other than sassy hometown boosterism.
"I don't care what my father did, I don't care what the next person's father did," DeSimone says without apparent signs of irony, "Keep your fucking mouth shut, that's what Chicago's all about."
Thanks to David Knowles
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