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'Family Bonds' bails out a genre

A made-for-TV family of bondsmen puts the 'real' back into 'reality.'

September 17, 2004|Paul Brownfield | Times Staff Writer

HBO calls "Family Bonds," which debuts Sunday night at 10, a "real-life series" as opposed to a reality one. The distinction is subtle but important. "Reality show" (the phrase, anyway) conjures drive-by viewing experiences at the expense of people seeking near-fame -- you know, the marketing executive contestant on "The Apprentice" who isn't TV but desperately wants to become TV.

The Evangelistas, the real-life extended clan at the center of "Family Bonds," simply are TV. Tom, the dad, is a little like Tony Soprano, only not nearly as rich, well-dressed or, apparently, therapized. Like Tony, his life is divided between the bad guys at work (Tom's in the bail bond business, which can require breaking down doors and busting skulls) and the wife and kids at home.

If this sounds like a sitcom, it kind of is (the 10-part series airs in half-hour installments). But it's closer to "The Osbournes," without the celebrity, or "The Real World," without those post-conflict talk-for-the-camera moments. The makers of "Family Bonds," who include director Steven Cantor and producer Matthew Galkin, do a good job of setting up this family as amusing, tight-knit and typical; to cast them would have been to ruin them, because the Evangelistas are all, as the cliche goes, characters. People who might be family.

In addition to Tom, the tattooed, nipple-ring-wearing patriarch, there's Chris, his equally tattooed nephew and lieutenant at work; Flo, his wife; Dana, his junior college-graduate daughter, who works in the All City Bail Bonds office; Sal, his son, who at 18 is eager to join the family business; and Frankie, Tom's too-tender 7-year-old boy.

The setting here is Queens, where All City Bail Bonds is located, and middle-class Long Island, where the Evangelistas live. There's a running gag about Tom and Chris bickering in the car about directions whenever they go looking for a fugitive. Meanwhile, Flo hangs out with her other frosty-haired gal pals at the Classy Lady Nails Etc., the et cetera being sex talk.

The Evangelistas are Italian American, and -- who knows whether they're winking or not at the stereotypes -- the tone is that of a Mafia-themed comedy. Tom can exhibit more caring and patience when corralling a scofflaw than teaching his kid how to ride a bicycle. When Sal puts on a bulletproof vest for his first father-and-son fugitive hunt, Tom instructs his kid to stay behind him when they hit the streets, lest he get shot.

"I don't need to bring you home with a bullet in your head to your mother. She's gonna be very upset."

"Why would you bring him home?" Chris chimes in.

It's impossible to say whether the Evangelistas are playing to the camera, though I'm sure they are, at least a little bit. Who isn't these days? The filmmakers began shooting "Family Bonds" nearly two years ago, having originally intended to do a documentary on bail bondsmen, figures who exist both inside and outside the law. Then they found Tom Evangelista. "If you get arrested, we'll bail you out," Tom, seated at a desk and dressed in a suit, says into the camera in the show's opening, which is utterly cool, from the main titles to the AC/DC sampling. "Things only get complicated if you run. Then we're coming after you."

The nuts and bolts of his livelihood are murky; "Family Bonds" never tells you what he does; it just shows you. It's a reality series tipped toward documentary, in the way that a somewhat less gripping series on TV right now, "Film School," on the Independent Film Channel, approaches the genre.

That show is about a group of New York University film students doing their first shorts. You have to be fascinated by the milieu to stay with it, whereas "Family Bonds" requires less effort. It has to do with the Evangelistas. You don't get the sense that after the series ends they're going to sink into a horrible depression, or worse, troll for what's left of their fame in down-market celebrity magazines.

The broadcast networks could learn a lesson from "Family Bonds" -- give us fewer wannabes and ex-celebrities and find us actual people.


'Family Bonds'

Where: HBO

When: 10 p.m. Sunday

Ratings: TV-MA (may be unsuitable for children under the age of 17)

Tom Evangelista...himself

Chris Evangelista...himself

Flo Evangelista...herself

Sal Evangelista...himself

Dawn Giassakis...herself

Frankie Evangelista...himself

Director, Steven Cantor. Executive producers, Cantor, Daniel Laikind. Co-producer, Pax Wassermann. Producer, Matthew Galkin. Co-executive producers, Julie Goldman, Caroline Stevens, Krysanne Katsoolis.

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