IT ISN’T hard to see why five production companies are suddenly showing interest in filming reality TV shows in South Boston, and it isn’t the beautiful views from Castle Island. Rather, it’s the view from the Joe Moakley Courthouse, where James “Whitey’’ Bulger is going to go on trial, opening up a retro world of colorful mob characters and ethnic loyalties and resentments. Fleshing out these images with real-life characters could make for great TV.
But it’s bad for the Southie neighborhood of today, and the city around it, because it’s representative of neither. Yes, Boston has proud neighborhood enclaves, and some, like South Boston, have strived to maintain their distinctive culture while accommodating fresh diversity. But that process of assimilation, advanced by compromise and understanding, is not what’s attracting reality TV producers, any more than shore communities’ struggle to maintain their identity against New Jersey’s thriving pharmaceutical belt was what drew cameras to the Garden State.
Just as “Jersey Shore’’ has come to define blue-collar sensibilities in the mid-Atlantic, Southie can be portrayed as the honking voice of working-class New England: Less bombastic than that of “Jersey Shore,’’ but more resentful and intense, and much of the same big hair, angry feuds, and racial and ethnic rivalries. One planned show, by the producers of “Jersey Shore,’’ focuses on Southie women; another plans to feature a multi-generational family confronting neighborhood changes; and yet another hopes to set up in a boxing gym.
While the architects of the state’s film tax credit hoped to open up Massachusetts’ stories to the world, this probably wasn’t what they had in mind. But Whitey Bulger got in their way. Just as “The Sopranos’’ begat “Jersey Shore,’’ Bulger’s real-life exploits - now decades in the past, but just recently brought to national attention with his arrest - have engendered fresh curiosity about Southie.
One consolation is that like politics, popular culture changes quickly. It’s no surprise to film pros that numerous production companies are pushing in the same direction; they’ll all go elsewhere soon enough. Hopefully, when they leave - to look for cowboys in Texas? authentic tribesmen in Kenya? - there will be enough different, and truer, Massachusetts stories to fill the gap.