First we got Donnie. Then, we got Marky Mark, who stuck around and became just Mark.
According to Wahlburgers, at least, we’re about to enter the age of Paul.
Paul Wahlberg is the older brother of the aforementioned pop-stars-turned-respected actors (seriously, Donnie’s pretty good on Blue Bloods), but he’s no performer. Instead, he’s a Boston-area chef, who owns a couple eateries. The purpose of Wahlburgers, A&E’s latest foray into reality programming, is to follow Paul Wahlburg as he runs his restaurant business—which includes his first joint, Alma Nove, and his casual dining spot, the titular Wahlburgers, in Hingham, Massachusetts, right outside of Boston—and looks to expand into other markets.
Paul is presented as uptight and high-strung, a ball of stress compared to his celebrity siblings. Mark and Donnie, who make several appearances in the first episode, clearly look up to their older brother, but they’re still the ones holding the purse strings. The title of the show may be Wahlburgers, but the restaurant is only one of many plotlines opened up in the premiere episode. The first location of Wahlburgers is doing well, and it’s prime for expansion. Paul wants to move to Boston, while Mark has his sights set on global expansion—mentioning Abu Dhabi over and over again as if the Middle Eastern nation is known for their love of burgers. Donnie is there to, well, be charismatic.
While Donnie and Mark’s appearances may be a selling point for A&E, in a way, they hurt the show. If there’s one thing that Wahlburgers does exceedingly well, it’s prove the theory that the “it factor” is something innate, not learned. Donnie and Mark do the lightest of lifting—clearly making appearances just so they can give their big brother (and, more importantly, his budding brand) a lift. But they are more interesting to watch than Paul is in his entire time on-screen. It’s not just because Donnie and Mark are known entities; it’s because they know how to work the camera and play up their personalities. Donnie is the ball-busting jokester, while Mark is the untouchable-yet-relatable one. Paul doesn’t have that ability to play a part, and opposite his camera-ready siblings, he comes off flat.
Enter Alma. As much as this show is supposed to be about Paul, he’s (thankfully) steamrolled by Alma, the matriarch of the Wahlberg clan. She’s one of these women who is apparently made of steel—if only because she was able to survive raising nine children in Dorchester, Massachusetts. Paul’s upscale restaurant, Alma Nove, is named for her, and tips its hat to her offspring (nove is Italian for nine).
Alma brightens up the show. One of Wahlburgers’ best running gags is how Alma tells whatever Wahlberg child is closest to her at any given moment that he or she is the “favorite.” It’s such a mom thing to do, but that won’t stop her from affirming to each one individually that they hold the crown.
Through Alma, Wahlburgers is able to expand beyond the restaurant premise. The playfulness associated with these familial moments is where Wahlburgers hits its sweet spot—like when Donnie celebrates wildly when he catches his mother on-camera admitting he’s the favorite. Later, Paul and Alma just happen to be near their former Dorchester home and head back for a tour. Alma starts to talk about Debbie, her daughter who died years before, and how important working in Paul’s restaurant was to helping her through her grieving process. These moments are Wahlburgers’ main draw—not the cameos by the more famous quarter of the Wahlberg clan.
The show is derailed by subplots that have no momentum or little drama. Take, for instance, the assistant Alma hires to help Paul. See, Paul does things his own way—something he repeats it constantly. Even under the guise of reality, the assistant’s presence feels unnecessary, and she’s blatantly placed within the context of the show only so producers would have another character to work with. There’s no drama there, no worry that at one point Paul will make good on his threat to let her go because he doesn’t need her. At one point, Johnny Drama and Nacho Extreme—familiar faces to Entourage fans—show up to try to scam free beers. Their introduction is shoehorned in as inelegantly as the assistant’s.
But it’s not just the subplots that feel superfluous. Even the driving story, the story of Wahlburgers, has no sense of urgency or forward momentum. Wahlburgers is doing well enough in its infancy to merit a second location—that’s not up for debate. Because Paul has the benefit of friendly investors (who happen to be related to him) and a healthy brand, the second location will happen. So the stakes of the show are not very high. And the details of location scouting are not nearly fun enough to propel even the first episode forward. Paul, without the magnetism of his younger brothers, isn’t able to fill the void left by the show’s utter lack of purpose.
Executive producers: Mark Wahlberg, Stephen Levinson, and Donnie Wahlberg
Starring: Paul Wahlberg, Alma Wahlberg, Mark Wahlberg, Donnie Wahlberg
Debuts: Wednesday at 10 p.m. Eastern on A&E
Format: Hour-long reality show
One episode watched for review