HINGHAM — What took so long?
Anyone even vaguely familiar with the turbulent back story of the brothers Wahlberg could see that a reality TV show was likely, if not inevitable. We already had a name for it. Given the family’s history of run-ins with the law on the mean streets of Dorchester, the show would be called “Wahlbrawlers.”
No such luck. “Wahlburgers,” premiering Wednesday at 10:30 p.m. on A&E, instead takes its name from the family’s hamburger restaurant in Hingham. And the star of the show isn’t Donnie or Mark Wahlberg, the onetime Dot rats who went on to achieve utterly improbable fame and fortune. It’s their brother Paul, another of the nine children raised by the family’s unflagging matriarch, Alma Wahlberg.
“My brothers got me into this kicking and screaming,” says Paul, a 49-year-old chef who oversees the day-to-day operations of the family’s burger joint. “I would be quite content plugging away in the restaurant. Television is not what I do.”
Judging from the first episode, he’s right. As reality TV types go, Paul is not terribly provocative. Pasty-faced and relentlessly polite, he won’t be confused with, say, Phil Robertson, the hirsute hunter from A&E’s popular “Duck Dynasty.” And aside from a few grease stains on his smock, he has little in common with Gordon Ramsay, the foul-mouthed master chef who hosts “Hell’s Kitchen.” Paul’s most compelling trait may be his high level of anxiety. The guy spends most of the first show simply fretting — about the restaurant’s opening, about new locations, about business meetings with his brothers.
“He’s such a worrywart,” Mark says at one point. “Paul ages a couple of years every couple of months.”
“Wahlburgers” is the latest and most personal of several reality TV projects being produced by the Wahlberg clan. Donnie is behind “Boston’s Finest,” the TNT program about the Boston Police Department, while Mark is working on a show inspired by the teased-hair harpies of “The Fighter,” and another series about a group of real-life nerds at MIT that is loosely based on the CBS sitcom “The Big Bang Theory.”
“Whatever this becomes, that’s what it is,” Paul says of “Wahlburgers,” sounding ambivalent about being on TV. “I trust my brothers and I trust A&E. I’m just trying to do what’s expected, trying to make the show entertaining and to keep the business going.”
Opened two years ago, Wahlburgers is the first of what the family hopes will be a worldwide chain of patty emporiums. (“I’ve had offers to open in Abu Dhabi and Dubai,” Mark boasts in the first episode, clearly not content with one restaurant tucked behind a Bed Bath & Beyond in a mall on the South Shore.) On a good day, Paul says, the restaurant sells 1,500 burgers. But take down the oversize images of Donnie and Mark, and there isn’t much that distinguishes Wahlburgers from Tasty Burger, Five Guys, or Shake Shack.
Yes, the menu includes a Double Decker burger (“like our friend’s house down the street”) and a Triple Decker burger (“like the house we grew up in”) — both topped with “Wahl sauce, dill pickles and government cheese” – but nothing about the place screams Savin Hill.
The most interesting parts of the TV show take place outside the restaurant and relate to the Wahlbergs’ dysfunctional family life before Donnie became a boy band star with New Kids on the Block, and Mark morphed from beefcake underwear model to heavyweight Hollywood actor/mogul. Paul and his mother reminisce outside the family’s former home on Mercier Avenue — the scene, no doubt, of some serious drama — and we meet a couple of family friends, including glassy-eyed rogue Johnny Alves, the basis for the Johnny Drama character on HBO’s “Entourage.”
“We do what we do. We bring the party, bro,” Alves says in the debut episode, making us more than a little sorry “Wahlburgers” isn’t about him.
But the show does not dwell too long on the past, and it makes only oblique reference to the inglorious incidents for which the family is sometimes remembered, notably Mark’s arrest in the 1980s for beating two Vietnamese men, leaving one of them partially blind.
“Our family had a lot of ups and downs,” Donnie says in the show. “One of us was usually locked up or running away from something. The time we could be together sharing anything positive was always a special time for us.”
A&E has nine episodes of “Wahlburgers” in the can, so it’s possible the family’s colorful history will be featured more prominently in the future. For now, though, the focus is on Paul, whose humble beginning in the restaurant business was washing dishes at Trolley’s, a bar near the old Boston Garden. The first in the family to graduate from high school, he also briefly studied culinary arts at Newbury College in Brookline.
“Listen to that sizzle,” Paul said the other day, sitting at a table at Wahlburgers with no cameras hovering nearby. “The best thing about a burger is you can make it whatever you want.”
Although they’re partners in the show, the brothers are not spending more time together than before. That’s because Donnie lives in New York, where he stars in the CBS drama “Blue Bloods,” and Mark is in Los Angeles, where he’s making movies and building a 30,000-square-foot French manor. Their lives are very different.
“No, we don’t talk daily,” says Paul. “I don’t think they want to listen to me and I don’t know if I want to listen to them.”