Earlier this month, Mayor Bill de Blasio tweeted out news of a petition condemning MTV’s latest reality-TV offering, Made in Staten Island. “Anyone who has spent any time on Staten Island knows MTV is peddling stereotypes in a shameless ratings grab,” the mayor posted, in a tweet that was met with support, contempt, and angry New Yorkers urging de Blasio to focus on fixing the subway instead. “Perhaps back to Mayoring?” suggested one concerned tweeter.
But de Blasio isn’t the only politician to get their panties in a twist over MTV’s new offering. As The New York Times recently reported, City Councilman Joseph C. Borelli, a Staten Island representative, has accused the show of stereotyping Italian-Americans and exploiting teenagers, saying, “They are playing this stereotype out among kids and glorifying a life of crime.”
The MTV series, which premiered on Monday night, countered by showing up at Councilman Borelli’s office. Executive producer and Mob Wives star Karen Gravano, whose daughter Karina also stars on the show, tweeted out a picture of her and some young cast members rolling through with Made in Staten Island pizzas and an offer to “sit down, have a slice and talk about the real issues of Staten Island.”
Gravano summarizes her series as a show “about kids striving to do better for themselves.” The writer of the de Blasio-approved petition, Joseph Maniscalco, sees it as a “portrayal of Staten Island as a cesspool of gangsters, meatheads and low lives.” Maniscalco’s petition, which went live long before the series’ actual premiere, has almost 8,000 signatures. That means that nearly 8,000 concerned citizens dispute “the premise that kids from Staten Island all grow up surrounded by the mafia.” Specifically, the petition critiques the notion that star Karina is “lucky… to have the guidance of her grandfather, notorious mob murder [sic] turned informant, ‘Sammy The Bull’ Gravano,” concluding, “A show like this demeans what it is to be from Staten Island.”
The series unquestionably traffics in stereotypes. To hear narrator and star CP tell it, Staten Island is chock-full of retired mobsters and amped-up meatheads. In MTV’s imagining of the “forgotten borough,” “Staten Island princesses” date “hustlers,” and jaded teenagers say things like “you can’t trust anyone on sneak island.”
It goes without saying that this show is terribly faked. Staged drama sessions occur in the middle of a random field, where no one even attempts to justify the blatant plot propulsion. Forced fights lead to unconvincing breakups, and even the talking head green screen seems to give up at one point, cracking like an old Photo Booth filter. At the same time, you can’t expect authenticity from millennials who have been raised on reality TV. Cast members cycle through old-school archetypes, mafia aphorisms and approximations of made-men swagger, while simultaneously echoing Jersey Shore. They play up Italian accents as a joke, and generate catchphrases for a living.
Still, there’s more reality here than in some of Made in Staten Island’s peer programming. Certain details are just too good not to ring true, like the parking lot where CP says he and his crew hang out when there’s nowhere else to be, and a late-night spot called Mug Shots. Plus, the lifelong friendships between the group clearly go deeper than casting. Kayla accompanies her best friend CP on a trip upstate to visit his father in prison. On the long car ride, they talk about what would happen if he was incarcerated as well, and she pledges to always stand by him. Kayla and Dennie’s friendship, meanwhile, was cemented when they decided not to beat the shit out of each other one time. “Before I went to go fight her she said listen, I know we had our beef, but it’s over, it’s done with, we’re chill,” Dennie narrates during an impromptu motor boat tour around Manhattan. “From that moment on, I fucked with her more than anybody.”
One of the premature criticisms of the show is that it glorifies a life of crime; however, almost every featured character is trying desperately to stay out of jail, and at least pays lip service to the need to change their life. Sometimes this feels like even more posturing, e.g. when a high schooler pronounces, more or less unprompted, “you live by the gun, you die by the gun.” But several members of the main cast have been arrested in the past, and some, like protagonist CP, are currently fighting charges. The show highlights its characters’ agency, playing up the decision to choose the “straight life” over the “street life.” Cast members are routinely lectured by family members who have cycled through the prison system or are currently incarcerated.
For the anti-carceral reality TV watcher, this is a surprisingly compassionate study of the lasting effects, on individuals and families, of locking human beings in cages. The visiting scene between CP and his incarcerated father alone made the premiere worth watching. Mayor de Blasio could probably stand to listen to these Staten Islanders, especially when they call out “one of the worst jails in the U.S.,” Rikers Island.
For all its joys—teens pledging their undying love by deleting social media, aspiring young hedge funders screaming “I can get you the money in 24 hours” into the phone, frequent references to “the cardboard king of Staten Island”—this show is far from perfect. Some storylines, like Karina and Paulie’s explosive relationship, are too manipulated to be taken seriously. And the deeply tanned aesthetics of a few of the female leads, one of whom refers to herself as “ghetto fabulous,” are uncomfortably appropriative. Still, you’ll find yourself rooting for Paulie to get his GED, and for Kayla to ace her court-ordered anger management. MTV might just inspire record numbers for the Staten Island Ferry.