When Pietro Savastano pulls out his dick in a nightclub, pisses into a champagne glass and asks his lieutenant, Ciro, to drink it to prove his loyalty — AND HE DOES — that’s when we realize: We’re not in Jersey anymore.
This is the world of Gomorrah, the mafia drama that’s quickly become Italy’s most popular television series. For American audiences, it fills the giant void left by the end of The Sopranos and The Wire. The second season arrives in the U.S. on Wednesday on the Sundance Channel and if you’re not already watching: catch up. It might be the greatest television crime drama. Ever. (Season One has 12 hourlong episodes, in Italian with English subtitles.)
The series is based on the 2007 best-selling book of the same name by investigative journalist Roberto Saviano. The book is a nonfiction account of the Camorra, an Italian organized crime network known for its savagery. If it’s any indication of the book’s authenticity, Saviano has been living in hiding, under armed guard, since the book came out, due to the number of death threats he’s received. “This life is shit,” Saviano writes on his website, “it’s hard to describe how bad it is.”
Those overtones of doom and unrelenting danger pervade the entire TV adaptation. Set in the suburbs of Naples, the series follows the Savastanos, a fictional crime family that makes the Sopranos look like humanitarians. Its godfather, Don Pietro, is a ruthless leader unlike any other on television. Consumed with power and the constant battle to expand his drug operation and wipe out his rivals, he’s calculating but also unpredictable, rash and paranoid. He doesn’t have the thoughtful, measured judgment of Don Corleone or even Tony Soprano. Under Savastano’s rule, all bets are off.
In other words, don’t get too attached to any of the characters.
Pietro’s wife, Imma, is a full-on Lady Macbeth, steadfastly supporting her husband, but also with plans of her own. Their wreck of a son, Gennaro, is dying to get into the family business, but he’s nowhere near ready. And he may never be. A spoiled, soft, simple, man-child. Think: Eric Trump in a tracksuit.
Ciro, the Iago-like lieutenant, whose nickname is “Immortal,” is the closest thing the show has to a hero, which isn’t saying much. In the opening scene of the series, he sings along with the radio as he makes his way to torch a rival’s apartment — with the man’s mother inside. It’s the nicest thing he does in Season One.
The performances are all brilliant, as is the writing. Storylines barrel forward at a breathtaking pace — from revenge plots against the family’s main rival to the fallout when a main character winds up in prison. Gorgeously filmed without being beautiful, the darkness of the plot is echoed on-screen — the dark streets or the confined, high-rise projects of Naples captured with a docu-style sensibility.
What makes Gomorrah different from American mafia and crime stories is its unapologetic lack of sentimentality. Michael Corleone wrestled with the morality of his family’s business; Tony Soprano had panic attacks and went into therapy. But no one in Gomorrah’s world has time or interest in reflection or contemplation. In that way, the drama bears more resemblance to The Wire than The Sopranos. There’s no justice, no redemption. Only self-preservation.