162. Sicilian Wonder Years

I have managed to get through two years of this pandemic without getting hooked on watching much of anything. Sure, I eagerly awaited the weekly Tucci episode, and didn’t miss the latest installment of Only Murders in the Building, even though I never had the faintest idea what was going on. But many of the shows that others swore by — things like Schitt’s Creek, The Queen’s Gambit, Call My Agent — were perfectly fine, but after seeing a few episodes, I got the point and was done.

Given my old lady sleep pattern — never more than four hours per night — I also have trouble staying awake watching anything. Put me in a chair in a darkened room, and I’m gone. I may be the only person to sleep through all of Act 1 and Act II of Hamilton on Broadway, probably making it the most expensive nap ever.

But finally, my husband and I found a show that we find so emotionally intense that we can’t watch more than two or three episodes in a week, for fear that the top of our heads might just blow off. The Mafia Only Kills in Summer is the story of the middle class Giammersi family in Palermo in the late 1970s, when the Mafia there was at its peak. At its heart is 11-year-old Salvo, through whose eyes we see life at school with his chums (and his crush Alice) and at home with his parents and teenage sister, navigating challenges that would look familiar to any American viewer. Even if Salvo didn’t look so strikingly like Kevin Arnold on The Wonder Years, that series would inevitably come to mind. Much of it is a very sweet coming of age study of a boy, his friends, and his loving family.

Salvo and family

(We’ve streamed the show two ways. The first is through PBS Masterpiece, available through Amazon Prime. There’s a one-week free trial, then it’s $4.99 a month. The second is the Hoopla app, available for free through local public libraries.)

A typical residential street in Palermo, where the Giammersis would have lived.

But what the Giammersis face — that the Arnolds didn’t — is the constant tentacles of the Mafia, inserting themselves into all aspects of their lives, in major and minor ways. They might witness a car bombing on the way to work, or have a boyfriend vanish to escape a hit on his family, or need to decide whether to accept a promotion, where “doing favors” might be required. It is lurking as a factor in every decision that they make, whether it is worth it to “play the game” to get what is rightfully theirs, or whether it is better to sacrifice what they deserve to remain pure. The Mafia here are no charming Tony Sopranos or brooding Michael Corleones, but dumb and brutish, except at its highest reaches of commerce, the church and the government, where they are slick as can be.

I grew up with an Italian father who didn’t believe that the Mafia existed. I don’t know if that was meant to be literally true, or simply a statement that the Mafia was blown way out of proportion in the American imagination about Italian life, in ways that were deeply offensive and wildly inaccurate. My mother, who grew up in Chicago and had an uncle who was the mortician who “buried” Al Capone, might have had a different take on that. But for sure, one can lead an entire Italian-American life without thinking about the Mafia for even one minute, let alone having to factor them into daily decisions, large and small.

For the American tourists, who are somehow charmed by romantic images of the Mafia. Real Sicilians know better.

So, as Ben and I watch Salvo and his family navigate these waters, we’re a nervous wreck. We’re only up to episode seven, because we have to take a multi-day break between them, just to calm down. There’s no chance of napping here, even for a minute.

A tribute to the dangerous efforts of real Sicilians, largely successful in the 1990s, to root the Mafia out of their daily lives.

4 thoughts on “162. Sicilian Wonder Years

  1. I look forward to watching this. Sicily is one of our beloved travel memories. My favorite has been My Brilliant Friend but that is embedded in Naples.


  2. Started watching this on your spouse’s rec. it’s great, both for the madcap-high-energy acting and the glorious setting photog, making us determined to visit Sicily whenever covid subsides…


  3. Great recommendation, sounds right up my alley and might help with my Italian as a soon-to-be citizen (though … do they speak in dialect?) Funny about what your dad said about the mafia. My mother often said: “There’s no such thing as the Mafia.”


  4. As far as I can tell, they’re speaking Italian. And it’s slow and clear enough that I can understand at least half of what they’re saying.


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