Why Are We All So Obsessed With Gawking At Staten Island?

Photo: Courtesy of MTV.
Staten Island is often called The Forgotten Borough. But, you wouldn’t know it by looking at the television schedule. Last week, MTV’s perfect reality show Jersey Shore returned with Family Vacation. While the title of the televised fist-pump fest is a nod to the seaside towns of New Jersey, a full one-third of the total cast (Vinny Guadagnino, Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino, and Angelina “Not A Dirty Hamster” Pivarnick) actually hails from New York City’s most derided island. Last night, Staten Island even found its way onto the hallowed business-y airwaves of CNBC — home to shows with high-minded names like Retire Well and Executive Edge — with Staten Island Hustle, a reality show about five of the borough’s boisterous business men. The lovable, loud quintet always appears to be seconds away from yelling “Fuhgeddabowdiit!”
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Television is obsessed with giving us the chance to gawk at the exploits of the deeply Italian-American-influenced island, which happens to be where I was born and raised. It’s high time we figure out why we all can’t look away.
If there were only two Staten Island-ish shows bopping around the airwaves, it wouldn’t be much of a trend. But, following about the premiere of Jersey Shore in 2009, a cottage industry has been built around staring at the escapades of Richmond County residents and their infamous accents. There was VH1’s Mob Wives, about the women of the borough with romantic connections to organized crime, which led to spin-off Big Ang. Coincidentally, the scene stealing wife of Hustle, Janine Detore, is the little sister of Big Ang, née Angela Raiola. Then there’s TLC’s 2017 addition Hair Goddess, about a Staten Island hair extension salon. Plus, there are the shows you’ve probably never heard of, like OWN’s failed Staten Island Law and WE tv’s fallen Staten Island Cakes.
Even in the fictional TV world, The Mindy Project had a habit of traveling to Staten Island — a place actual science has proven has one of the worst commutes in all of America — at lightning fast speeds to deal with leading man Danny Castellano's (Chris Messina) native borough. And, there was that one time Danny and Charlie Lang (Tim Daly), Mindy Lahiri’s (Mindy Kaling) short-term season 2 love interest, had a deeply specific verbal jousting session about their respective Staten Island cred. In fact, Staten Island seems to be the only borough Mindy visited other than her home of Manhattan over 117 episodes of New York-based TV.
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The common thread throughout all of these shows is a near-obsessive love and interest in family. More often than not, those families are Italian-American. Danny was so attached to “Staten,” as he confusingly called it, because of his limitless loyalty to his Ma, Annette Castellano (Rhea Perlman). The Jersey Shore isn’t great because of all of its catchphrases and shot-taking. No, the show only really gelled when the cast became a family and celebrated as much with weekly Sunday dinnah.
That same level of familial duty led to MTV’s short-lived The Show With Vinny, where celebrities went to vocal son of Staten Island Vinny Guadagnino's family home to eat with him and his mom, Paula Guadagnino. After The Show, Vinny and Paula starred in Vinny & Ma Eat America. You might not know what the rest of the Jersey Shore cast’s parents look like, but Paula Guadagnino is a major part of her son’s brand.
Even Hair Goddess, hypothetically a business show, relies on the chemistry of a Staten Island family. All you need to do is look at the docuseries’ trailer for proof, as the first words out of star Christina Oliva’s mouth are, “Mom I can’t tawlk right now.” Her sister Victoria is unsurprisingly sitting next to her.
This kind of easily relatable affection is an inviting, assuring door into a culture known mostly for its excess. TV Staten Islanders have no fear of big tans, big hair, and big accents, but they also love their families, and the concept of family, as much as anyone else, if not more. Reality TV might live off of drama, but you also need to identify, at least a little bit, with the personalities on your screen. Since most people have some sort of strong opinion on their families, the fifth borough offers up that difficult mix.
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That fact never felt more evident than during a recent New York City press dinner for Staten Island Hustle. Of course, the nearly four-hour meal went down in a sprawling white tablecloth restaurant in Manhattan’s Little Italy Neighborhood. During the dinner, in between shouts of “Mangiare!” and plates of antipasti, Janine Detore, proud mother of seven, regaled everyone with her story of winning a meatball war against sister Big Ang. She cut mozzarella en carozza and eggplant rollatini for the adults around her, explaining, “I’m a mom, it’s what I do.” When Detore wasn’t dealing with the preparation and sharing of Italian food, she was lovingly explaining the fact at least 13 people live in her Staten Island home, and one more will be crawling around soon, as she’ll welcome her first grandchild in a matter of weeks.
But, the conversations weren’t all about family. Soon enough, Detore was happily running around the restaurant taking Instagram Live videos with the waiters. At one point, her husband Dom “The Boss” Detore announced his wife could give the Kardashian family a run for their money when it comes to their famous curves. Janine, clad in black pants and a black lace top, happily jumped up to prove her husband was correct. Throughout all of this, the Hustle cast couldn’t stop roasting each other. As the roar of the dinner became so loud you could hear it from the other side of the very long restaurant, it was pretty obvious why CNBC saw this crew and decided they merited their own show.
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With larger-than-life characters like these, it's unlikely we'll ever look away from “The Forgotten Borough.”
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