Sundance TV is the little engine that could. It was the home of stories that mattered before AMC adopted the now famous tagline in 2009. Brainchild of Robert Redford, it has showcased indies and documentaries before they became a cottage industry in Hollywood. Since 1996 it has had a number of partners Showtime Networks Inc. and NBC Universal (1996–2008) and AMC Networks (2008–present) but it has retained its original focus. This is the creative space actors seek for singular roles and stories. This is the antithesis of tent-pole programming.
Less heavy-handed than ABC’s American Crime, Sundance TV is a snapshot of unique voices and stories from around the world. It unearths humanity in all kinds of communities and cultures from the virulent sexist community in Queenstown, New Zealand in Top of the Lake to the racist town of LaBorde, East Texas in the 1980’s in Hap and Leonard. This goal is elevated in the complicated story told in The Honourable Woman, the heart-wrenching one in the A Word and the sadness in Rectify.
With Gomorrah, Sundance TV confronts another community. Set in Naples, it is Sopranos meets New Jack City with a sprinkling of the reality of the Wire. The show captures a clan’s criminal enterprise and culture without stripping away their humanity. Their dysfunction is on display without exploitation. The Italian drama originally aired in 2014 and its success pushed its release to one hundred and thirty other countries. Like the 2008 film, it is based on the book by journalist Roberto Saviano, who spent years reporting on the Camorra in and around Naples.
Gomorrah is ruled by Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Cerlino) but one of his lieutenants becomes disillusioned when he is tasked to groom and protect Genny Savastano (Salvatore Esposito), Pierto’s son who is ill-equipped to succeed his father. With some of his own doing and some providence, Ciro di Marzio (Marco D’Amore) manuvers himself into the position as the head of this clan. His deeds were generally grounded in his and his family’s well-being until a trio of his deeds show him to be more like Marlo Stanfield than Omar Little. In season two, airing now in the USA, he has lost himself. His quest for respect and power are his only goals.
More Empire than the Wire, Gomorrah is Italy’s biggest show. The storylines unfurl quickly though often not completely or satisfyingly, leaving one to ponder about characters and situations long after the credits. Deaths and endings are not unusual so their blunt treatments are not jarring but often violent. This show is not afraid of telling a story that will upset or put-off viewers. Losing a major character or introducing a game-changer late in the story is part of the thrill for its creators. Ideal for Binge-watching, this show has an ever-growing line of succession for the Gomorrah drug enterprise. With Pietro’s dethronement, Ciro’s reign is far from secure. There is always another watching and learning, readying to wrestle control.
Career defining performances are eclipsed by life in Naples. Like The Wire, Gomorrah is dark and relies on the dark places drug dealers inhabit to tell this story. Don’t expect the poshness of Sopranos or even the Queen of the South. There are no picturesque landscapes of Italy in this show. Even when the gangsters escape their community they hold-up in a lovely but abandoned seaside hotel of sorts.
Though Gomorrah is often publicized as set in the suburbs of Naples, the large tenements are dreary and ominous structures. They give way to apartments no American would reject. The action is generally regulated to the slums where the drugs are slung. The clan meets in warehouses or parking garages, they sell from storefronts and often spend time in places the authorities or rivals won’t venture.
In season one, we experience a major character in the confines of jail and we marvel at the communal cooking and housing, even as we take in the stabbing and death of yet another. In season two the cramped and isolated places Genny and Piertro land are telling. And when one of the clan leaves for Rome, he is initially awed by his new ritzy living quarters. This is an aspect of the drug enterprise the show truly captures. Gangsters often live in austere structures and when this changes it doesn’t often end well.
More than other crime shows, Gomorrah shows the price of this lifestyle on the gansters, their family and ordinary people. The people of the community are drafted into it not out of ambition or loyalty but necessity, vengeance, fear and intimidation. Women and men, mothers-daughters-husbands-sons, perform gangster-lite tasks. Last season it was Marta. Will it be Patrizia this season?
Though my favorite gangster films/series are Road to Perdition, American Gangsters and The Wire, I appreciate all of the genre including Chinese Triad films and Japanese Yakuza films. So believe when I say, if you are not watching Sundance TV’s Gomorrah, you are missing the through line to the originator of the genre, the Godfather.