‘I feel like it’s probably our fault for enabling these boys,” says Noelle, one of the protagonists of “Breaking Boston,” a reality show about women in Boston that will premiere on A&E in March. “Like, we, like, let them do whatever they want and then we wonder why they act like this.’’ The boys under discussion are the predictably feckless, self-regarding, unreliable, wrong-doing reality-TV men whom Noelle and her friends love. But to my ear she’s also figuratively talking about the male characters who dominate the popular Boston stories that Hollywood has turned out in recent years.
The Boston movie boom, encouraged by a confluence of the state’s film tax credit and nostalgia for white-ethnic neighborhood life, has been dominated by stories about a particular set of characters: usually Irish, sometimes Italian; often criminals or cops; typically from Southie, Dorchester, Charlestown, or some other part of the metropolitan area where the fading outlines of the old white-ethnic urban village can still be made out. They’re all tough as nails, and they all scrupulously drop the second r in “retard” and pronounce the “w” in “tonic.” We also get the occasional fast-talking brainiac affiliated with a Cambridge university, as in “The Social Network,” but the range of characters has not strayed far from the template established in 1997 by “Good Will Hunting,” in which Matt Damon plays a Southie guy who’s also an MIT genius.
And almost all of these characters, at least the ones these movies care most about, are men. Until Amy Adams and Melissa Leo got the chance to play meaty roles in “The Fighter,” the iconic speech by a female character in the canon of Boston-area tough-guy movies was probably Laura Linney’s Lady Macbeth turn in “Mystic River” — but, of course, what she’s doing in that scene is urging Sean Penn to be a man and live up to the atavistic regular-guy ideal.
Compare the Boston movies’ remarkable narrowness of range to, for instance, the New York movie and TV boom that developed in the 1970s after Mayor Lindsay wooed production to that city. Even among the stock male action heroes there was more variety — not just white-ethnic paragons like Popeye Doyle (from “The French Connection”) and Kojak, but also black Caesars like Shaft and Priest (from “Superfly”), and refugees from the Western played by Charles Bronson and Clint Eastwood. And female urban types did occasionally take center stage in movies like “An Unmarried Woman” and “Annie Hall.”
Enter Mark Wahlberg, who has played several standard Boston guys and is also the executive producer of “Breaking Boston” (and also of “Wahlburgers,” another Boston-set reality show). I think I can see what he was thinking, and it’s kind of inspired. What happens to the long-suffering girlfriends and wives of the manly neighborhood heroes in movies like “Mystic River,” “The Departed,” “Gone, Baby, Gone,” and “The Town”? “Breaking Boston” is to these movies as “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead” is to “Hamlet.” It explores what’s happening in the wings, back home, while the usual suspects hang out in authentically morose dive bars, beat each other up, and do time.
That margin-and-center dynamic moves under the surface of the climactic moment of the preview episode I saw, which comes when Noelle’s mom sits down her daughter’s boyfriend, just back from an impromptu 17-day jaunt to Miami and Mexico over New Year’s that he has tried to make up for with flowers and a mumbled apology, and says, “I’m telling you as a Sicilian, as a mother, don’t [mess] with my kid, because it will be the last time anybody will see you. Got it?”
You have to work hard to enjoy reality TV. It can be a chore to keep contempt at bay when you’re marooned in the often dispiriting zone between actual life and traditional high-gloss Hollywood artificiality, awash in the awkward line readings and clunky plot contrivances that connote “reality.” But “Breaking Boston” exerts some additional appeal on the level of genre, as a small, preliminary step toward filling in the enormous gaps left by the obsessive tendency of the Boston movie boom to depict this city as the Planet of the Regular Guys.Carlo Rotella is director of American studies at Boston College. His latest book is “Playing in Time: Essays, Profiles, and Other True Stories.’’