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All in the Family



Published August 18, 2004 at 4:00 p.m.

Hear that giant thud? It's the sound of American culture hitting rock bottom. Certainly the overall trend has been downward since reality television rose to prominence. One might have assumed the medium could stoop no lower than Anna Nicole Smith and Paris Hilton in its quest for celebrity fodder, but they are veritable ambassadors of all that is highbrow and ennobling next to reality's newly crowned queen, Victoria Gotti.

That's right, while gifted actors, writers and directors are reduced to working at Wal-Mart, the spawn of the most notorious mobster in modern times is starring in her own TV series. "Growing Up Gotti" chronicles the adventures of a bitter, middle-aged mother of three and her effort to shed the stigma of her family name while at the same time, you know, milking it for all it's worth.

Which, in this strange land of ours, is plenty -- for example, a sprawling Long Island estate so garishly ornate it could've been designed by the architectural firm of Guccione, Liberace & Elvis. One of the principle story lines in the series, which airs Mondays at 9:30 and is in its third week, involves the possibility that Gotti might put the place up for sale. Talk about a cliffhanger.

And then there's the mob daughter's job as a gossip columnist at the Star, where she cranks out late-breaking bulletins like the fact that Jennifer Lopez was "extremely brokenhearted" after her breakup with Ben Affleck. Recently her penetrating journalistic sensibility led Gotti to predict that Ryan Seacrest's talk show would go off the air. Is there anyone who tuned into that black hole of vacuousness for a minute and didn't predict the same? We're not exactly talking Walter Winchell here.

The Gotti name has also gotten her a book deal and the backing to start her own magazine, which will be called Red Carpet and feature in-depth pieces on -- you guessed it -- celebrities. Thank God somebody's finally going to fill that niche!

So far, the show's two other primary themes concern Gotti's "down-to-earth" approach to single motherhood and her never-ending search for romance. With three teenaged sons -- Carmine, John and Frank -- to raise, Gotti faces challenges familiar to many parents. Namely, juggling a family and a career with only a small private staff and a fortune in dirty money.

"This is not about fame," the show's star explained to an Entertainment Weekly reporter in June. "It's about showing the world that we are not a real-life Sopranos." Of course, the denial rings a tad hollow, given the photo of the dapper don prominently displayed on a foyer table, and the fact that the boys' father, ex-husband Carmine Agnello, is presently doing a stretch for racketeering and tax evasion.

Then there was Gotti's demure reaction to a blind date gone bad in episode one. When her dinner companion hints that she may be just the tiniest bit spoiled, Gotti walks out on him and tells her driver, "I'll give you a thousand dollars if you take him to a ditch somewhere and roll him in."

In episode two, she gets the hots for a beefy landscaper who's looking to break into modeling. Gotti spends the first half of the show drooling over the guy, and the second pulling her aborted date routine all over again. The two share a romantic dinner, attempt some light conversation and, the next thing you know, she's storming out of the restaurant and into her limo. The explanation this time? "He had a great body but nothing under the hood, ya know what I mean?"

I'm mystified as to what the appeal of "Growing Up Gotti" is supposed to be. The program is completely lacking in the playfulness of celeb reality fests such as "The Osbournes" and "Newlyweds." What made "The Osbournes" such fun, for instance, was the contrast between Ozzy the prince of darkness and Ozzy the bumbling dad. "Growing Up Gotti" has no such juxtaposition to offer, no behind-the-scenes surprises to reveal. Her sons are dull thugs, and Victoria Gotti is nothing more or less than she appears at first glance: a pampered, humorless, self-absorbed and intellectually limited Mafia princess.

How did something like this ever wind up on TV --much less on A&E? Every time I tune in, I find myself pining for that never-aired VH 1 series about Liza Minnelli and David Gest. That, at least, would have had freak-show appeal in spades. Never mind the moral implications of trying to squeeze entertainment out of a family with a history of violent crime; I just can't imagine why anyone not getting paid to watch this would do so.

"People are always telling me I'm like a real-life Lucille Ball," Gotti commented with characteristic cluelessness in a recent interview. "But I don't see it."

Neither do I. Even in an age when the line between crime and entertainment has been blurred to the point of meaninglessness, Victoria Gotti is not a person of interest.