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'American Gypsies' premiere on NatGeo: Explains nuances

The Johns family from the series

The Johns family from the series "American Gypsies." Credit: National Geographic

UNSCRIPTED SERIES "American Gypsies"

WHEN | WHERE Premieres Tuesday night at 9 on NatGeo

REASON TO WATCH Another (volatile) closed community opens up to TV cameras.

WHAT IT'S ABOUT If your concept of "Gypsies" rests on some painted caravan of hotblooded con artists from an old episode of "The Girl From U.N.C.L.E." -- OK, I confess -- "American Gypsies" is here to tell you different.

Or maybe not. Are Gypsies excitable? What, EXCITABLE?! All Gypsy women are psychic. The patriarch's word is law. Oldest brother has next say. Grandma informs the 14-year-old she'll be getting married in a year or two.

So they could be from Central Casting. But this show's three-generation Johns family of New York City consists of real people, too, even if they do have cameras following them from Bensonhurst to Staten Island to Astoria as they maintain how separate they want to stay from the gaje, or non-Gypsy, world.

It's the story of a tight-knit clan from Any Ethnicity, really. What are the squabbling three oldest brothers here but "The Godfather's" Sonny, Fredo and Michael? And the grandson who's dating a gaje girl? The granddaughter who wants to break away to be an actress? The arguments about "tradition" and "disrespecting our culture" and what you're "born to be"?

MY SAY It's the specifics that make or break any "docusoap," and "American Gypsies" sits atop a powder keg. Central figure Bobby is more open to assimilation than the rest of his family, with teen daughters who aspire to act, although their older brother is old-line ready to open his own "psychic shop." Bobby's traditional younger brother, Nicky, struts and explodes, chafing at being third in line to say-so. His rampage through a rival psychic shop lands the family in "Gypsy court," where disputes are solved off police books. Same with home "schooling," such as it is, leaving this youngest generation ill-equipped to deal with "the American way" and thus tied tight to "the Gypsy way."

Such interpretations are left to the viewer, as "Gypsies" lets the goings-on (and the inevitable cast "commentary") tell the story, using graphics to explain nuances of the group's history and slang. Serving as executive producer is Long Island's Ralph Macchio, his own performing career from "The Karate Kid" to "Dancing With the Stars" weighing ironically against the Johns girls' utter incomprehension of what "being an actress" might entail in terms of talent or effort.

Navigating your way through the world is a scary thing, no matter where you start. Family can help. Or hinder.

BOTTOM LINE Strong personalities evoke the hold of the old, the tug of the new, and that intersection's human fireworks.


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