‘Amish Mafia,’ mostly horse droppings
Discovery reality series is based on the flimsiest of evidence
December 7, 2012
Viewers of reality TV can become fans of the disclaimers that pop up onscreen during supposedly nonfiction shows.
Discovery's purportedly documentary series "Amish Mafia," which contains reenactments of the activities of a group of alleged enforcers in a Pennsylvania Amish community, has a whopper: At the end of the premiere episode, a graphic reads, "Recreations are based on eye witness accounts, testimonials, and the legend of the Amish Mafia."
Long before the end, most viewers will have started to suspect that they're watching something with a tenuous attachment to fact. If there's any hard evidence that the action in the show is more than the product of the vivid imagination of its subjects or of its producers, we don't see it.
The only kernel of truth in this show may be the fact that TLC's "Breaking Amish" has been getting good ratings. Watched as an example of the efforts of TV creators to spin something out of nothing in order to cash in on a possible trend, "Amish Mafia" is oddly entertaining. But one episode will be more than enough.
Premiering Tuesday, Dec. 11, at 10:30 p.m. (its regular time slot is Wednesday at 9), the show opens with a voice-over in which a woman explains that the Amish are very religious and peace-loving; meanwhile we see shots of men in Amish garb looking tough and brandishing weapons in various rural settings.
The voice turns out to belong to an Amish woman named Rebecca, who is the sister of one of the members of the so-called Mafia, which consists of exactly four men. She's the only non-member in the show who says that the group even exists.
In fact, a disclaimer at the start of the show states clearly, "The Amish Church denies the existence of the Amish Mafia." Other graphics say that the local police refuse to comment about the alleged criminal activities of the group.
The leader of the so-called Mafia is an unthreatening-looking man called Lebanon Levi. According to Rebecca, he's never been baptized, so the leaders of the community allow him to do things that need to be done but are forbidden by Amish practices. Rebecca says he serves as the community's de facto police, courthouse, bank and insurance company.
In the premiere, two of his henchman, Rebecca's brother John and a non-Amish Mennonite named Jolin, help an Amish woman whose buggy was wrecked by a car driven by her "English" neighbor. In what may be the first of the episode's reenactments — as far as viewers can tell, the entire episode could be reenacted — Jolin visits the neighbor, exchanges cross words and then takes a rifle and shoots a hole in his car window.
"The Bible says it's an eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth," he says.
Even in rural Pennsylvania, that has to be a felony, so it's extremely unlikely that Jolin would have let the camera film the act if the guy in the house weren't a paid performer.
Jolin and John also follow up on a lead that Rebecca gave Levi: A taxi driver whose customers are mostly Amish told her that he had been driving an important man in the community to visit a prostitute. Preparing a stakeout, Jolin and John go shopping for their first camera.
Without spoiling too much, we can say that their camera skills are as good as their luck. The footage of the stakeout is just salacious enough to rouse viewers without necessitating any of the blurring that's customary in basic cable.
As the hour wears on, we gradually come to realize that the creators of "Amish Mafia" have dramatic ambitions beyond most reality shows. Levi tells us that he's always had a thing for Esther and that he hired John so he could spend more time with her.
Esther, meanwhile, says she uses Levi's crush to her advantage. She also says that when her father died, Levi took the place in the community that should have gone to John.
John, meanwhile, says that he's keeping some of the photos he took at the stakeout to possibly use as leverage. "I think it's time for me to take back what's rightfully mine," he says. Esther subtly encourages his ambition.
But the fourth member of the crew, a mush-mouthed but ominous youth named Alvin, makes it clear that anyone who wants to get at Levi will have to go through him.
Never mind Amish Mafia legends — this stuff is clearly inspired by "Hamlet" and "Macbeth," with maybe a touch of "The Godfather" thrown in.
The difference, of course, is that Hamlet and Macbeth and Barzini didn't discuss their plans to rid themselves of their respective nemeses on camera for a show that the nemesis was obviously going to watch.
The producers spoil the fun by linking Levi's rise to power to a 2006 incident in which a non-Amish man killed five girls in an Amish schoolhouse. The killings supposedly alerted the Amish to their need to be able to defend themselves.
This mix of tragedy and good-natured malarkey is ill-advised. It suggests that the creators of "Amish Mafia" have no clear idea of what they're trying to do. Chances are they'll get worse at it in future episodes.
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