As someone who’s watched at least a few episodes of every version of the Real Housewives franchise and feels a bit nauseous about it, I didn’t come to Mob Wives with high hopes. But this floridly funny, vicariously vicious reality series exerts a vulgar charm. It’s like watching a cross between The Sopranos and The Real Housewives of New Jersey.
These are truly mob spouses. Karen Gravano is the daughter of Sammy “The Bull” Gravano; Renee Graziano is the daughter of Anthony Graziano, said to be a high-ranking member of the Cosa Nostra. The four main “wives” have either husbands or fathers who have served or are serving time in jail, and the woman are tough, issuing blithe declarations such as “Ya never rat no matter what” and “I beat up a lotta f—in’ people.”
They’re so immersed in crime culture, they don’t make a big deal out of it – unless someone crosses them. While much of Mob Wives offers the interesting spectacle of these excessively made-up, body-altered people living their lives in garish luxury, there’s a core element of drama that every successful reality show requires. Renee, Carla Facciolo, and Drita D’avanzo are all friends in Staten Island, but Karen has spent the past ten years in Arizona as part of the witness protection program.
In the premiere, we follow Karen on her move back to Staten Island, because she yearns to be back where, as she says, “Staten Island is a breeding ground for the Mafia.” Since Renee in particular considers Karen’s father a rat whose testimony damaged the John Gotti and the Gambino crime family, the two women are on a collision course.
Their initial reunion, at Carla’s birthday party, feels staged – or as Renee says of her friends, who kept Karen’s return a secret, “These f—in’ bitches set me up!” – the fireworks between the women seems authentic. I think authenticity in such a context means, everyone sputters inarticulate insults that struck me as sincerely hostile. At least, that’s what I took away from Drita’s fractured maxim, “If you can’t do the time, just f—in’ kill yourself.”
By turns funny, appalling, and frightening, Mob Wives is swiftly paced, reality-TV at its most effusively dismaying.