Robert Johns Sr., center right, shakes hands with a man in a Gypsy court after… (Paul Dokuchitz / National…)
"American Gypsies" is a new reality series from National Geographic Channel, and perhaps the clearest indication yet that the magazine and the TV network that shares its name are operating on different principles and standards of veracity. Produced by Ralph "Karate Kid" Macchio, it takes whatever might be enlightening or moving about the subject and crams it into the standardized strictures of what has become the lowest form of television, however much you want to intellectualize your love of "The Real Housewives of Whatever."
The subject is the Johns family of New York City, whose members — reinforcing rather than overturning the greatest of all Gypsy stereotypes — run a string of "psychic shops." ("Psychic healing," not "fortune-telling," is now the preferred term, as "Roma" and "Romani" are for "Gypsy," although "Gypsy" remains in the title, to get people to watch. See also: "My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding.")
The things we see happen here are, strictly speaking, true, in that they happened, but they did not all, one suspects, just happen: Most of what I've seen feels deformed by a desire for drama (and the sometimes stiff line delivery of the subject-players). Choices have been made in the service of "storytelling," which is to say that real life has been made to resemble the work of a hack screenwriter.
At the center of the story is likable Bobby Johns, whom the non-Roma, or gadje, viewer will likely find the most sympathetic; one of five brothers with five children of his own, he wants to move his family toward a more open, option-filled way of life: "It's time to adapt to the times," he says, "like every other culture has." Specifically, he has allowed his younger daughters to take acting classes, causing apocalyptic, apoplectic havoc among his kin — apart from his nephew Val, another renegade, who dates outside the nation.
After his parents — ailing father Robert Sr., who declares from his sickbed, "I'm fighting for this family.... You's got to keep it, my five sons," and mother Tina, who opens a conversation with Bobby's daughter Amanda, "You're 14.... Two years from now, maybe a year from now, you're going to get married" — Bobby's main critic is younger brother Nicky, a loudmouthed thrower of tantrums. As a defender of tradition, unfortunately, he comes across merely as a fathead. (The other brothers, seen here and there, play minor roles in the series.)
Though it starts promisingly enough, with a party scene that seems meant to recall "The Godfather" and other such sagas, and though we get a few glimpses at Roma ways along the way, the producers are so focused on creating and highlighting conflict that after a while, as with the boy who cried wolf, you would just like everyone to shut up and be eaten.
Why, of all the cautionary tales the Johns could have taken from gadje culture, they chose to ignore the one about not letting yourself become a character in a reality show, I cannot say. Perhaps more than anything this speaks to our commonality.
When: 9 p.m. Tuesday
Rating: TV-PG-DL (may be unsuitable for young children with advisories for suggestive dialogue and coarse language)