Last week, a new chapter began in South Boston, one that many in the community had been dreading. With the premiere of “Southie Rules” on A&E, the neighborhood’s reality show era had officially begun.
And just as soon as the show started rolling, a question emerged: What is this thing?
“Southie Rules” had been billed as a serious drama about a local family “battling” the gentrification of the neighborhood. It is not that.
The opening scenario involved one of the brothers, Matt Niedzwiecki, attempting to pay the family’s cable bill by selling meatballs to his neighbors on a bicycle.
So what is it, then? According to the producers and stars, “Southie Rules” is a hybrid of reality show and sitcom, an unscripted family comedy that they say developed organically after the cameras started rolling.
“There really isn’t a genre for us,” said Jon Niedzwiecki, 28, one of the family members who is being promoted as the star of the show. “Some people went in expecting a drama and got a comedy. Some people went in expecting reality, and they got more of a sitcom.”
Instead, he said, it’s a show about his family performing in staged situations while knowingly winking at the artificiality of the reality genre. “Some shows try to insult the viewer and pretend it’s not [staged],” Niedzwiecki said. “We blow right through that stop sign and try to focus on getting laughs.”
How the show came to this point was somewhat accidental, according to Seanbaker Carter, one of the executive producers. The initial goal was to do something serious about the tension between the natives and the newcomers in the neighborhood.
“There was all this talk of a turf war early on,” he said.
But the producers thought the family was so funny that they essentially filmed two shows, a comedy and a drama, and then decided which was better. They chose comedy.
In the beginning of the shoot, when they were delving into the issues brought by neighborhood newcomers, they felt as if they were 10 years too late. Gentrification is old news.
“As a family, to be honest, there wasn’t much that made us angry,” said Niedzwiecki, a dead ringer for Patriots tight end Aaron Hernandez. “So we focused on the comedic side. We didn’t want to shoot a show of us walking into a Starbucks and taking the cashier out from behind the counter and saying, ‘Stay out of Southie.’ ”
The show focuses on an extended family living in a three-decker, plus a free-loader named Devin Mahoney who sleeps on the couch. In the first two episodes that aired last week, South Boston was barely a character. There were some easy clichés: montages set to Irish music, accents turned up to 11, subtitles below everything Mahoney says as if it were impossible to understand what he’s saying. But the neighborhood was mostly absent, so was the fact that the family owns a tattoo parlor in Framingham.
The absence of Southie as a strong setting led many on social media to complain that the show could have taken place anywhere, yet it still has “Southie” in its title, bringing with it the implication that this family represents the community, a problem many Garden State residents had with “Jersey Shore.” Producers say the neighborhood will grow as a setting as the season goes on.
So far, Southie natives have escaped being turned into a caricature, something many feared in the buildup to the show. But the invading “yuppies” have not been so lucky. When Leah Winters, Niedzwiecki’s sister, hosts a “yuppie” mothers group at her home, they play the party game “Have you ever?” The “yuppie” mothers then say such things as “Have you ever spilled pinot on a white blouse?” and “Have you ever brought something to a party and said it was organic and it wasn’t?”
Jon Niedzwiecki said the key is for viewers to simply take the show less seriously. “It wouldn’t be Boston if everybody loved it right away,” he said. “That’s what makes this city so great; you can’t just come in and be accepted. You need to earn every inch. I hope, as the shows keep airing, people will accept it for what it is. There are shows out there that are being made right now that are going to make people very angry.”
He was referring to another show set in South Boston being made by 495 Productions, the people who made “Jersey Shore.” There is already a rivalry between the two.
When the “Southie Rules” cast was at the local bowling alley and the 495 production was filming, cast members tried to disrupt it, Jon said, by loudly singing “Happy Birthday” to Devin Mahoney several times. It wasn’t his birthday.
Billy Baker can be reached at email@example.com. Follow him on Twitter @billy_baker.