Reality TV discovers fresh turf with "American Gypsies"

Reality-TV has its best moments when it nudges us into worlds we've never known. Now cable does that twice this week.

On Thursday (July 19) will be "Great Lakes Warriors," visiting blunt, blue-collar guy working the tugboats of Lake Michigan. Before that, however, is "American Gypsies" tonight (Tuesday, July 17); it's chaotic, combative and, at times, kind of interesting. Here's the story I sent to papers:



Anyone who's known the Sopranos and the
Corleones will sort of grasp the Johns family.

“We're a big family,” Nicky Johns
said. “We love hard, we work hard and we fight hard as a family.”

Tradition is key. Most people stick to
the family business, being careful not to step into someone else's
territory; most follow the edicts of the family patriarch.

The difference is in legality. The
others are fictional crime families, the Johns clan – in the new
“American Gypsies” reality show – is law-abiding, running New
York psychic shops. “Everybody has a psychic ability,” said Bobby
Johns, Nicky's older brother. “They just don't know how to use it.”

Their mother is a psychic and says all
women in the family have the gift. Bobby's daughter-in-law works
as a psychic, as do his brothers' wives and daughters.

Still, his younger daughters resist.
“Bobby is especially progressive and trying to encourage his kids,”
said Steve Cantor, the show's producer. “He lets his daughters take
acting lessons, which is unheard of in Gypsy culture. Nicky is a
little more conservative and there's a lot of tension.”

More tension comes from rules against
dating and marrying outside the culture.

In the opener, viewers see handsome
Valentino Johns date a sweet-faced outsider. Supposedly, this is kept
secret from his dad – Erik, the eldest of the five Johns brothers.

Do others date outside their culture?
Sitting next to his dad (Bobby) and uncle (Nicky), Chris Johns, 20,
answered carefully: “I can't talk about things like that …. But
let's just say I married a Gypsy.”

He offered no complaints – “I love
my culture; I'm very happy with it” – and business seems to be
booming. The first two episodes see him preparing his first shop and
having his first son.

“My wife is a truly gifted psychic,”
he said. “My cousin and my brother and I just opened up a Gypsy
food truck in the city. In the future, I'm looking to open a fashion
design. I'm happy where I am.”

Chris reflects the mixed attitude
toward the show's title. “The word 'Gypsies' is a racial epithet to
us,” Nicky said. “We're Roma.” Yet while talking to reporters,
the three Johns men used “Gypsy” 13 times to describe themselves,
their family or their culture.

The wariness reflects centuries of
biases. “Gypsies were the first people in the Holocaust, before
Jewish people, before anyone else,” Nicky said.

The World Book Encyclopedia agrees that
“thousands of Hungarian, Czech, Romanian and Polish gypsies were
murdered in Nazi concentration camps.” It says the people probably
date back to India in the 1300s, then traveled through Iran and
Armenia to Syria, Egypt and North Africa, before reaching Europe in
the 1500s. A 1968 encyclopedia listing discusses traditions of dance,
music, mobility and businesses, acknowledging: “Gypsy life is not
always gay, nor are all gypsies dishonest.”

Along the way, language took twists.
“The word 'Gypsy' derives from 'Egyptians,'” Nicky said. “Gyp”
probably began around 1750 as a derogative variation of “Gypsy,”
the Webster dictionary says.

By comparison, “Roma” and “Romani”
suggest links to the Italian culture, something Ralph Macchio – the
actor who is producing “American Gypsies” – finds appealing.

“In my Italian, American and Greek
heritage, there exists that same kind of respect for elders and
respect for family, (which is) a very rich part of what the show is,”
Macchio said.

The Johns family has shed some of the
old ways. “The Gypsies in America are not really nomadic,” Bobby
said. “We're very modernized. I've lived at my place for 20 years.”

It's “a nice, two-bedroom” at a
good address, Cantor said. “He's assimilated into our society. His
kids have one foot in the American world, one foot in the Gypsy
world. And there's a lot of conflict in that.”

– “American Gypsies,” 9 p.m.
Tuesdays, National Geographic, rerunning at 11

– The opener (July 17) reruns at 9
and 11 p.m. July 19; 10 and 11 p.m. July 21; and 5 p.m. July 24

– The first two episodes air together
from 8-10 p.m. July 24 and 9-11 p.m. July 28