Brace yourselves, Staten Islanders: Your borough is the focus of yet another reality television show.
MTV is set to announce on Tuesday “Made in Staten Island,” the latest of the “Jersey Shore" and “Floribama Shore” variety that hope to suck us in with a balance of after-dark drama and relatable family dinners.
When it hits our television screens Jan. 14, it’ll most likely bring a flood of renewed attention to the borough along with it: buzz from those who love to watch, those who hate to watch and those who just can’t seem to look away.
The “forgotten borough” knows this rhythm well.
The Staten Island lifestyle — and Italian-American stereotype — has been represented on television each year of the past decade. Even networks like OWN, the Cooking Channel and CNBC have tried their luck with SI-set series including “Staten Island Law” (2013), “Vinny and Ma Eat America” (2017) and “Staten Island Hustle” (2018).
But none seem to have a better stake in the borough business than Viacom.
The parent company of VH1 and MTV has premiered five series with Staten Islanders front and center within the past nine years, plus its handful of other dating and game shows that often find their star with a local competitor. Describing Staten Islanders as "scrappy," MTV/VH1 president Chris McCarthy told Variety the island offers a "different texture" than the rest of New York.
“Staten Island is the epicenter”
“I think it’s one of the most interesting, most standout subcultures we have in this country,” says Staten Islander Vinny Guadagnino, 31, of “Jersey Shore.” “Like with the accents, I think that the first time people saw ‘Jersey Shore’ on TV they were just like what are these people? We were aliens or something. Obviously, Staten Island is the epicenter of that.”
"Made in Staten Island" borrows a bit from its “Shore” predecessors and “Mob Wives.”
It checks back in with Karina Seabrook, the daughter of the former “Mob” series’ lead Karen Gravano, and six of her friends — the borough’s "new crop of hustlers" — aged 19 through 22.
Gravano, an executive producer of the show previously titled “Staten Island 10310,” says she wanted to give her daughter’s circle a platform to show the world how another generation is evolving the turf she calls home.
“As parents, a lot of us grew up in that era where being related to someone in the streets or knowing someone was a cool thing,” Gravano, 46, says of the premise of the upcoming series. “But unfortunately, all of us went through our own troubles — who went off to prison — so now, this generation of kids are trying to look for a way out.”
She found her way to reality TV fame as the daughter of Sammy "The Bull" Gravano, the former underboss of the Gambino crime family whose testimony helped convict John Gotti. She admits Karina, and several other cast members, grew up living with the repercussions of organized crime connections, with family members behind bars.
“This show is literally my baby and not just because my baby is on it. It really represents children in today’s society and growing up and overcoming adversity,” she says, “probably because they were raised on Staten Island and their parents had gone through similar struggles being connected to the street life.”
The cast reminds Gravano of her own group of friends, growing up in Bulls Head, but says it’s their “over-the-top personalities” that make them the perfect fit for reality TV, just like other SI-set series.
Big personas — like “Jersey Shore’s” Angelina Pivarnick, the late “Big Ang” star Angela Raiola and “Mob Wives’ ” Renee Graziano — hold these reality projects together, often providing the needed ratings-boosting drama.
“Mob Wives” entered the scene in 2011 with 2.2 million total viewers, and a 0.9 rating in the 18-41 demo, a 92 percent increase over the network’s average prime-time ratings. “Jersey Shore,” with three Staten Island natives, brought the network a massive rating boost, 8.9 million average viewers, in 2009, and was rebooted in 2018 after its original run ended in 2012.
“Staten Island is its own little world,” Renee Graziano, 49, says. “The reason I think we are as successful as we are is because we give it to you raw. No holding back; well I speak for myself on that one.”
She’s not alone. Guadagnino, who says he’s actually the “anti-Staten Island guido mold,” agrees that those from his home borough speak their minds, with accents all their own.
“Everybody knows everybody’s business”
“Let me just put it to you this way, Staten Island is like one big family. Everybody knows everybody’s business. Everybody knows everybody’s history,” Gravano says, “whether you like them or not.”
“Made in Staten Island” plans to echo this sentiment, promising strong family ties.
“Today’s society has become very fast paced, but, uniquely, on Staten Island, we still hold that culture very valuable,” she says. “It’s a different Italian food store on every corner; who’s going over whose house around the holidays? We see the kids experience that on this show.”
SI reality stars agree relatable family values — and food — are at the root of the initial intrigue behind series set in their borough. The “Staten Island Hustle” cast gathered weekly over antipasto at Angelina’s on Ellis Street; “The Show With Vinny” invited guests inside Guadagnino’s kitchen to chat over his mother’s pot of sauce.
“Obviously, Italians are awesome and we revolve our whole life around food and family and dancing and drinking. It’s a fun culture,” Guadagnino explains, suggesting it’s this relatable image that leaves viewers with a sense of comfort.
He adds: “I bet you all the different nationalities see the Italian way and say, ‘oh, we’re Mexican, we do the same thing; We’re Indian, we do the same thing. I feel like just having that culture of fun and laughing and food is definitely relatable to people.”
“People love to talk”
But one can’t overlook that what draws some fans to these series is equally repulsive to others. Whenever an SI-based show is announced, backlash from locals who feel misrepresented and embarrassed by their reality counterparts isn’t far behind.
“I just love the haters who faithfully watch[ed]. To them, I say thank you,” says Graziano. Her “Mob Wives” was canceled in 2015 after a six-season run.
Plenty of reality shows set on the borough were one-season wonders — like “Staten Island Cakes” which hit WE TV in 2011, 2017’s “Hair Goddess” and 2018’s “Hustle,” which finished out its premiere run on demand before being quietly dropped by CNBC.
A looming flop rate doesn’t seem to be a turnoff to the Viacom network, nor its stars.
“At the end of the day, we’re not trying to represent everybody, we’re just trying to represent ourselves,” Gravano says of any backlash that may come her series’ way. “That just comes with the whole territory of being on TV or being famous. People love to talk about something just to talk.”