American Gypsies premiere unveils a little-known subculture, upstages Tony

Michael Santo's picture

Upstages Tony, as in, Soprano, that is. Tony was made up, whereas the Roma (that is the correct ethnic referent for Gypsy) Johns family is one hundred percent for real - slicked-back hair, psychic readings, poker-cheating, baseball-bat and fist-wielding warts and all.

Producer Ralph Macchio (yes, the very one) spent a long time pitching the idea of portraying a real Gypsy family – thereafter called Roma – on reality TV. "This is a fascinating subculture that exists right here in New York. I was astounded by some of the customs and what I would call unorthodox choices and traditions, but [they were] kind of relatable in a way with me being from a Greek-Italian-American family," Macchio said. "They have strong beliefs and family comes first -- this story needed to be told."

Did it ever. Macchio himself compares the family to a mix of the Sopranos, The Godfather, and Jersey Shore, and he is not at all off-base. OK, let’s get one thing straight: there may be fists and baseball bats, but there is no gun-wielding. Tempers flare aplenty while some wayward family members try out evil American mainstream pastimes like gaji (non-Roma) girlfriends or acting classes.

But we are ahead of ourselves, which is only appropriate given the show’s dizzying and charged pace. The show premieres full steam ahead in the midst of a clan gathering (we forget the occasion, but does it really matter? It’s one of those large-clan parties in a cheesy banquet hall with the men wearing blazers and loosened neckties and the women sequined dresses. There is a lot of booze, laughter and fighting. Need we say more?).

The clan consists of the patriarch, Bob, Sr., who is not there because he is recovering from a stroke at the hospital, the matriarch Tina, their five sons Nicky, Chris, Eric, Bobby Jr. (we don’t get introduced to son number five this time), the sons’ children, including Bobby Jr.’s girls Amanda and Samantha, Nicky’s son Chris, and Bobby’s son Val, and a vast supporting cast of family members and neighbors.

Whew. If you can keep that straight, good for you. We are not at all sure we have it down.

Right away, we see battle lines drawn between two Johns boys, Nicky and Bobby. Nicky is the quintessential, archetypal, troublemaking, think-with-his fists type of guy, while Bobby is the soft, peace-making voice of reason in the midst of the family din. When another Roma family sets up a psychic shop two-and-a-half blocks away from Nicky’s establishment, thereby breaking a Roma-sanctioned rule of keeping at least three blocks away from each other’s businesses, Nicky and his gang of brothers bust in on the trespasser, Rocky, with fists and insults blazing.

Bobby, though he accompanies his brothers to the confrontation, is uncomfortable with the way things went down and says it should have been settled in a Roma court of law (yes, they have their own court and arbitration process, though the proceedings resemble a tribal elders’ meeting more than a modern courthouse). Which is where it eventually lands, and even then, Nicky reaches across the long table to threaten his opponent – a shocking faux-pas.

Blood is definitely thicker than water here, and the importance of keeping family law, Roma law, obeying one’s elders and intermarriage within the Roma are constantly reinforced. The family nearly comes to blows – Bob Sr. even threatens Bobby that he will formally outcast him – because Bobby allowed his daughters Amanda and Samantha to go to an acting class, which, of course, was filled with tween gaji girls who are going to have untold terrible influences on the family girls.

Bobby, you see, has a heart of gold underneath the Johns bravado and greasy black hair. I would want him on my team, that’s for sure. After seeing his eldest daughter, Sal, do “the right thing” and marry a good Roma boy at 16 – no one here lingers past 18 to “find out who they are” without growing up and marrying, boy and girl – Bobby has misgivings about the way things go down for the women. He is genuinely interested in what Amanda and Samantha want and risks his status in the community to give them that opportunity.

Even matriarch Tina goes after Bobby with venom after this betrayal – she, for her part, had plans for Amanda, the youngest. She is convinced Amanda, 14, has “the gift” – the gift of fortune-telling – and sets out to groom her, only to be rebuffed by Bobby.

If the family thinks Bobby and his girls are doing the unpardonable, wait till they find out what Chris has been up to. Nicky’s boy and cousin to Amanda and Samantha, Chris has been secretly romantically involved with a gaji gal. As his other cousin Val points out, he would not want to be within a five-mile radius of Nicky when he finds out. Or something to that effect. After having met Nicky over many a confrontation by this point, we definitely agree with Val. We, too, might not want to be there when he finds out, even if it is only on the screen.

Image Source National Geographic Channel


Submitted by Anonymous (not verified) on
Given their propensity for violence, their general obnoxiousness, and their fat little faces; I'd swear to God they were Daegos.

Submitted by Rackie (not verified) on
I don't like to disrespect any culture but as a Hispanic who have done my best to adapt to the American culture I kind of take offense about people from other cultures who come to this country only for the financial opportunities and want to remain separate from the rest of the country, to me that is extremely self-serving. Reminds me of what Agent Jones said to Morpheus in "The Matrix" about what he thought humans really were... My question is if they don't like this culture so much, WHY live here??? Nicky, who I dislike very much, said in one episode I watched tonight, that they're not American, I was glad his brother Eric threw him out for saying that. Also, I wonder what the heck they have to feel so proud of, their tendency to violent outbursts and narrow-mindedness IMO places them kind of low in the cultural "food chain". And while I can see keeping some traditions is useful, clinging to ALL traditions for its sake alone is absurd, therefore, I definitely sympathize with Bobby's plight and I wish him and his girls the best. On another point, I wonder why almost all the men are so fat? Is it their diet and maybe that their tradition doesn't believe in exercise?!

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