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Sunday, May 29, 2011

Miss the Sopranos? VH1's 'Mob Wives' are Goodfellas in high heels


Mob Wives
When: 8 p.m. Sundays.
Where: VH1.
mobwives.jpg 
Red hot mafia mamas (from left) Karen Gravano, Drita D'avanzo, Carla Facciolo and Renee Graziano.
 
Hard as it is to believe, the Diva was not always fabulous. She was once a freelancer living in a cramped flat in New York City's East Village. It was 1991, and just down the block, Tompkins Square Park was filled with homeless shanties, not couples pushing Winnebago-size strollers and sipping Starbucks. When my party line went on the fritz, I had to use a nearby pay phone along with the neighborhood drug dealers.
Waiting my turn behind an especially chatty corner boy, I saw posters on the light poles lining First Avenue. Pictured was the head of Salvatore "Sammy the Bull" Gravano attached to the body of a giant rat. Sammy, "Dapper Don" John Gotti's bloody enforcer in the powerful Gambino crime family, had testified against his boss in exchange for a reduced sentence.
I never saw who papered the streets with those fliers -- I imagined a guy in a fedora and zoot suit, swearing as he shimmied up a utility pole -- but they were everywhere that year: all over Little Italy, flapping on tree trunks in Brooklyn. I even dared to tear one down as a keepsake.
Sammy's betrayal, Gotti's fall: The story was car-wreck fascinating. Later, Victoria Gotti, tanned to a crisp, appeared on the local news shaking a taloned finger at reporters covering her father's trial. "They broke the mold when they made John Gotti," she crowed. "He's the last of the Mohicans!"
What chutzpah! I thought. She's not ashamed -- she's proud. And suddenly, I wanted to know more about the daughter than her notorious daddy.
In 2004, A&E launched "Growing Up Gotti," but it slept with the fishes after three seasons. The sense of entitlement that dripped from Vicki's three sons like their hair gel didn't help. Audiences recoiled at the thought that the boys were buying Rolexes with blood money, even though Ma worked for a living.
So how do you craft a show about the domestic side of the underworld that won't make viewers say "fuhgeddaboudit"?
Jennifer Graziano, creator and executive producer of "Mob Wives," has figured it out. She is the daughter of Bonanno family big shot Anthony Graziano, who is in prison for tax evasion and racketeering.
The VH1 series centers on four women who were either raised by made men or are hitched to gangsters. Graziano calls it " 'Real Housewives' on steroids," though even that doesn't do it justice.
These Staten Island moms unleash profanity-laced tirades that would make Tony Soprano blush and drink more than Lindsay Lohan on probation. (Shots of Patron are a favorite). With diamond-studded crucifixes nestled in their cleavage and lynx pelts on their backs, they are "Goodfellas" in high heels.
Thanks to her family ties, Graziano knows what it's like to grow up mobbed up. So does her sister Renee, one of the show's breakout stars. "My sister, for me, was always born for television -- she's been dancing on tables since she was like 2 years old."
Put it this way: New Jersey "Housewife" Caroline Manzo would find herself in the trunk of a car parked at the airport if she ever tried her tough-guy act on Renee Graziano. The Mafia princess received her first fur (a white fox) at age 7, her name monogrammed in blue on its satin lining. Renee loves the luxe life and protection her connections provide. When a "jerk-awff" in a Polo shirt bothers Renee at a bar, she speed-dials "Junior," her ex-hubby, conveniently out on bail. (A fervent apology is extracted.) Still, she confesses, she doesn't want her 16-year-old son following in his father's and grandfather's footsteps because "those footsteps lead to prison."
Jennifer Graziano was working on a scripted version of "Mob Wives" when the success of the "Real Housewives" franchise convinced her that she could break into TV a lot faster going the reality route. Hollywood heavyweights Harvey Weinstein and Ben Silverman, executive producer of hits "The Biggest Loser" and "The Office," loved the concept and gave her an offer she couldn't refuse.
Finding the talent wasn't hard. "I realized I've had the cast under my nose my entire life," she says. In addition to sister Renee, she tapped longtime friend Carla Facciolo, happily dating though "technically married" to Joe, away, as she tells her kids, on an extended, multi-year business trip for stock fraud; and Drita D'avanzo, an Albanian beauty with Hulk-like anger-management issues. ("When I hit you, you're gettin' hurt. You're goin' down. You're getting stitches . . . plastic surgery. I'm not pulling your hair," she tells the camera. "An ambulance is sure to come.") Drita is keeping the home fires burning for husband Lee while he serves another two-to-four for bank robbery.
Rounding out the fierce foursome is Karen Gravano, Sammy the Bull's daughter. In one of the series' best narrative arcs, Karen, who moved to Phoenix after her dad "cooperated," returns to Staten Island to confront her critics and write a book. Fearless as a pit bull and unsparingly honest, when asked what she's looking for in a man, she responds, "He definitely has to have a good loaf of bread." And she don't mean in his pantry.
"Mob Wives" debuted in April and has averaged 1.3 million viewers per episode in its first six weeks on the air, solid numbers for a cable show with no marquee names attached. ("Sarah Palin's Alaska" premiered to 5 million viewers, then ratings dropped like a stone.) VH1 has ordered a second season, a move that will likely chafe wiseguys, who aren't big fans.
"There are definitely whispers," Graziano says. "Mostly, guys think that we should not be doing the show." Then again, it's not about them. "Exactly," Graziano says.
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A friendly Sunday dinner at Renee's house.
 
Like "Jersey Shore," the genius of "Mob Wives" is that no feeling is left unexpressed, no slight goes unpunished. While the "Real Housewives of New York" battle one another with cold shoulders and eye rolls, the Staten Island sirens throw punches. In last week's episode, things got so heated during a Sunday dinner at Renee's, "I had to get in there and break it up -- I was the blurred figure running around," the producer laughs.
Despite the broken fingernails and bald patches, one of the take-home lessons of "Mob Wives" is the value of girlfriends. "Honestly, who's there at the end of the day?" Drita asks Renee during a "sit-down" at Buddha Lounge to resolve an especially ugly barroom spat. "The friends. Because the men . . . "
"They're behind bars," Renee finishes, then orders herself a drink called "the Crazy Mama."
Like most fem-centric pop products produced in the last two decades, from "Sex and the City" to "Bridesmaids," there is more than a little girl power in "Mob Wives." At bottom, Renee and her posse, who have largely defined themselves through the men in their lives, now find they are struggling to form new, independent identities. The questions they wrestle with are standard feminist fare with a Cosa Nostra twist: Do I continue to spend my days stuffing care packages with sausage and mozzarella to send to the federal pen? Or do I dump the goombah weighing me down?
"Their men went off to jail, and they find themselves having to fend for themselves and take care of their families alone," says Jennifer Graziano. "And that's my biggest message -- it's like, 'Women, you can do this alone. Even if you have a husband, you still don't have to be dependent upon him. If he's home or in jail -- stand up and take care of yourself.' "

http://www.cleveland.com/tv/index.ssf/2011/05/miss_the_sopranos_vh1s_mob_wiv.html


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