South Boston Is Too Ugly for Reality TV
Fifteen years after Ben Affleck and Matt Damon perfected their Boston accents in their breakthrough, Good Will Hunting, the Adidas track-suit-wearing, R-dropping broods of South Boston remain ripe objects of fascination.
Starting in January, the cable channel A&E waved the shillelagh anew with the fake-ass reality show, Southie Rules. Besides accurately showing how fucking annoying most people from Southie are, (especially when together in public), it's not actually a reality show at all. Initially announced as (of all things) a drama about a hard-working family dealing with gentrification, the show’s producers are now calling it "a hybrid of a reality show and a sitcom." It’s a pasty, pudgy version of Jersey Shore, a Southie Seinfeld, if Larry David had spent his entire life growing up on Dorchester Avenue devouring cereal bowls full of Oxycontin and baby formula while farting lead paint on his younger siblings.
While I read the show’s lackluster reviews and complaints from real South Boston natives about how contrived and forced the show was, I found myself wondering what sort of a reality show they would have expected or hoped to see? Then thinking about my experiences with kids from Southie when I grew up, it was almost sad to realize that the real South Boston was too fucked up to actually be a reality show.
My first real Southie encounter occurred during my freshman year of high school. I was in gym class when someone drilled a football into my face because I had a Circle Jerks shirt on. I tried to defend myself, but faster than Mark Wahlberg could say "Maybe fuck ya self," I was surrounded by a pack of shamrock-shake-brained steak heads in training. They began taunting me for being a "freak" before hurling racial slurs at me because I was from Roxbury, a predominately black neighborhood in Boston. The initial shock of finding out how volatile race relations in the city really were, was nothing compared to walking past a row of lockers splattered with the blood of a black classmate who had been hit in the head with a folding chair a Southie student had thrown at him from the staircase a couple floors above.
During this period of the mid 1990s, South Boston was still living many lies that were about to be exposed. Southies would boast that theirs was the safest neighborhood in Boston to raise a family or walk around at night. Drugs were not a plague on the community and were not tolerated, the story went. By being a tight-knit community, they were able to police themselves and keep the bad elements out. Then came the news that reputed South Boston Mob boss James "Whitey" Bulger, long believed a townie Robin Hood, had not only been living a second life as an FBI informant, but that he was using that status to conceal his many twisted endeavors. With the Feds protecting him over the course of his ruthless reign, he literally got away with murder. Nineteen times, actually. Including a young woman he is alleged to have strangled. Not only did he know of drugs in the neighborhood, he even had a hand in it.
This had not been a huge surprise to me from my sour dealings with Southie students with their pinned pupils glaring at me while their Ritalin-rimmed nostrils dripping on their desks. More shocking was the unexplained rash of teenage suicides that swept the neighborhood the following year, resulting in six deaths and some 70 attempts. All predominately young white Irish-American youth from a supposed utopian neighborhood. No solid link was ever really established, but the sex abuse scandal that rocked the Catholic Church in Boston during this time was something that always lurked in the shadow. As a matter of fact, the head of our school at that time, Father Richard McCormick, is currently awaiting trial for the rape of a young boy 30 years ago and has already settled many civil suits against young men he is accused of abusing. It is also a cruel irony that McCormick was part of the Salesian order of priests, which was founded by St. John Bosco to serve poor and abandoned children. The very type of children lost in the shuffle of the Southie streets.
It was thankfully the end of a bleak era for many Boston youth where you could be shot to death on the streets for your sneakers or be robbed of your innocence by a priest and find yourself hanging by your own belt in the D street projects. A sad similarity that the Catholic Church and South Boston shared was the higher-ups denying that there was even a problem for so long, with so many innocent young children hanging in the balance. It turned out that Southie had more in common with The Wire than any other show, with the only difference being that beneath the high-level denials and deceit, there were poor white people with their fingers on the triggers of syringes when they weren't using them to point at the black neighborhoods of Dorchester and Roxbury as the true scourge of the city.
As I tortured myself by watching a recent episode and realizing the only authentic Southie moment I could see was a guy forcing his wimpier friend to eat a banana, I couldn't help but think that maybe this was the most positive portrayal of South Boston natives yet. After all, they weren't even swearing in front of their kids, zonked out on Xanax bars, or rat packing minorities and outsiders in a Beechwood aged haze. In recent years, South Boston has begrudgingly begun to give way to gentrification to more diverse and affluent faces, with many natives caught in a catch-22 feeling that the neighborhood is losing its identity, yet still not ready to admit how horrific and hidden that identity once was. Unfortunately for the residents of South Boston, Hollywood has still not had enough of their lurid legacy.
Robert DeNiro recently announced plans for a series about a neo-Nazi movement based in South Boston that has caused local politicians to urge DeNiro to retire if this is the best he can do at this point in his career. On the big screen, Johnny Depp will hopefully get the Hunter S. Thompson out of his system in time to portray Bulger in an upcoming movie based on his dealings with the FBI. And with the real life Bulger is due to finally stand trial this year after fleeing indictment almost 20 years ago on a tip by his former FBI handler, there is no question that South Boston and it's swish-panted Pantheon of pill dealers and ticket scalpers will still get their 15 minutes of fame.