Tony Soprano used to slog away on the treadmill while watching World War II footage on the History Channel, before stomping upstairs to reward himself for having pushed himself through his exercise regimen by squirting half a can of whipped cream straight into his mouth. Nowadays, a new show debuting on the History Channel is lucky to have anywhere near as much nutritional value as one of Tony’s post-workout snacks. Touchingly, though, the network still likes to pretend that its over-controlled reality series have some tenuous connection to historical information. Take, for example, The Great Santini Brothers, which is about a Brooklyn-based, family moving company. In deciding how to package the Santinis and turn them into reality stars, somebody decided that their Italian-American heritage is a gold mine, and the movers have been encouraged to turn themselves into full-scale stereotypes of macho Italian guys from Brooklyn, good-naturedly insulting each other, playing little practical jokes on each other, using a scene involving an enormous snake as an excuse to boast about their wedding tackle, and, in the case of the family elders, waxing nostalgic about what it was like growing up half a hundred years ago with Ma and Pa, from the old country.
The elders are George and his brother, Joe Senior. It is explained that they would love to retire, but have to keep returning to active duty because the inheritors, George’s son Don and Joe Senior’s son, Joe, Jr., are a couple of doozy bots and gagoots. When the Santinis use their colorful terms, textbook definitions helpfully appear on the screen, though when a pop-eyed fellow who has employed the Santinis—and who, in the judgment of one of the younger Santinis, “seems like he’s been sniffing markers way too long”—gets hot under the collar and calls the movers “spaghetti venders,” this is deemed self-explanatory and allowed to hang in the air without footnoting.
Inexplicably, someone seems to have looked at this footage and decided the on-screen talent wasn’t laying it on thick enough, so there’s also a voice-over narrator, who sounds as if he’s getting a little carried away while doing a Ragu commercial. The funniest parts of the show come when this guy tries to beef up the educational level by slipping in little factoids. In one weird sequence, a Santini parks the truck near a building where the movers are doing a job, then gets into a prolonged, heated squabble with the building’s doorman. While the two of them are seen giving each other grief, the narrator pipes up to say that “All this guy has to do is make one phone call, and the Santinis will be slapped with one of 22,000 parking tickets that New Yorkers get hit with every day!” Then the show cuts to the action inside for a while, and when it cuts back outside to show that the two men are still going at it. “He’d better watch his ass,” says the narrator, abandoning any hopes he’s ever had of being called the Alistair Cookie of his generation, because the doorman “has over 1,300 co-workers in the New York area!” And the worst of them are all played by Larry Miller!
Anyone who’s ever lived in New York and tried to get a bookcase from one borough to another, or even across certain streets, will be intrigued by the chance to see the Santinis demonstrate the tricks of their trade, such as how to get an unwieldy collector’s item—a suit of armor—to the ground floor by loading it on top of the elevator car. But there’s not nearly enough of that kind of thing here: Instead, the show is all about the Santinis’ personalities, and the older men’s relationships with their sons. And, as sometimes happens in reality TV shows where everyone is trying too hard, the personalities don’t seem real; the people behave as if they were playing themselves in a sitcom based on their lives, which I guess is sort of what they’re doing. (Plotting to spring the snake on the younger men, George tells his brother, “I saw a little something special, Joe. That sort of gives me a good idea in my mind. This’ll be good for the two kids. Teach ‘em a lesson. They’re always badmouthing us!” Here and elsewhere, the “dialogue” sounds the way awkwardly translated subtitles in a foreign-language movie read.)
The weirdest thing about this show is that, when George isn’t busting the youngsters’ chops or rambling about family in the manner of Moonstruck, he’s lecturing the kids about the vital importance of preserving the value of the business’ good name and reputation; nothing matters more. Yet he’s agreed to be part of a TV show about the business that opens with a scene in which his son and nephew horrify a client by tying a rope around her piano, dropping it from a great height, and basically using it as a yo-yo. Maybe he thinks that’s okay, because it ends with him swooping in to reassure the customer and make everything all right. Or maybe it’s just assumed now that the show will be good for the Santinis’ business no matter how it depicts them, because an outside chance of being on television trumps the more primitive desire to not have your possessions reduced to kindling.
- The great doorman-versus-Santinis crisis is resolved when Dad comes outside, sees Junior screwing everything up, and secures the parking space by slipping the doorman a little something-something and suggesting that he might need to take a 20-minute bathroom break. But it’s all in good fun, Mr. Housing Authority Person Trying To Find Something To Watch Besides Low Winter Sun!
- As Dad is driving around, something triggers a recollection: “I can remember as a kid, that the Brooklyn Dodgers, when Jackie Robinson stole home, Brooklyn was dead silent. You could hear a pin drop on Flatbush Avenue.” While he’s babbling, a picture of Jackie Robinson flashes on the screen, and the date “OCT. 10, 1955” appears, because, THE HISTORY CHANNEL!
- Although George is the most verbose of the many Santinis seen tonight, it’s the relatively quiet Don who gets off the best line. After the marker-sniffer tells the Santinis to take a hike, he tries to do their job by himself and gets wedged in the basement. He’s been there a while when they return and help set him free. Afterwards, George remarks on the change in the man’s personality, and how much nicer and friendlier he was when they came back. “Yeah,” says Don, “not pissing will do that for you.”