Hey, chief. Book it down to the packie and grab yourself a thirty-rack and some Mahb Lights so we can get legless while watching Southie Rules on A&E. That’d be wicked awesome.
If you didn’t understand that sentence, odds are you’re not from South Boston. The proud, insular neighborhood has been a favorite of Hollywood since Good Will Hunting, having continued on with the exploits of Ben Affleck, Matt Damon, and the brothers Wahlberg, along with movies like The Departed (or shall we say The Depaahted). The accents are exaggerated (well, kinda) and often the more boorish the behavior the better.
But that’s the Hollywood version. Southie Rules is an attempt is to show the real South Boston through the eyes of a real Southie family. That would be the Niedzwiecki-Winters clan, three generations who all live together in a huge house and who have stuck with the neighborhood through the so-called “yuppie invasion.” Leah Winters says she knew something was different when she came back to Southie in 1999, after having lived in Arizona for three years. The $500-a-month, two-bedroom apartment she had been renting was now $1,250. Then there were other changes, like schools closing down because there were far fewer families, and favorite mom-and-pop restaurants were giving way to strange new ventures like “sushi places” and more upscale eateries.
Still, though, the family stayed, despite Leah and just about everybody else in the house at some point urging the family matriarch, Camille Niedzwieci, to sell.
“My mother was born and raised in Southie,” Leah explains. “She’s never lived anywhere else, and never wants to live anywhere else. We’ve got this big, beautiful house, a lot of our family is in Southie. Mom never once considered selling this house. There were times when each one of us would say to her, ‘Just sell it. Let’s go buy a cul-de-sac. We can buy three houses for this one house.’ And Mom never gave up. She said, ‘Absolutely not.’”
Now, Southie is adjusting to its new dynamic, Leah says, with more of the former interlopers becoming more ingrained in the community and raising families of their own. Schools are coming back, too. So when Leah saw that some TV people were wanting to show the Southie she knew and loved, she jumped at the opportunity. But her family wasn’t immediately onboard.
“Everybody’s first reaction was, ‘Is it going to be like Jersey Shore? Because if it is, we don’t want any part of it,’” she says. “[The production company] assured us from Day 1 that it wasn’t. We had a lot of conversations amongst ourselves in the family, you know, ‘Are we strong enough to do this?’ ‘Are we brave?’ ‘Are we ready to take a chance?’ And the answer was unanimously yes.”
Whatever else anyone wants to say about the Southie Rules folks, you have to say they are strong personalities. In addition to Leah and Camille, there’s Walter, Camille’s ex-husband and father of their two sons, Jonathan and Matt. Walter is also a recovering alcoholic who is still completely in love with Camille, even sharing a bed with her, although Camille just considers them friends. Jarod is Leah’s much younger husband, who is always there to listen to the family members’ problems. Jonathan is Walter and Camille’s oldest son, the golden boy, whose main priorities are keeping the family’s tattoo shop going and his controlling girlfriend Jessy happy. Matt works for Jonathan at the tattoo shop and has a baby daughter with his girlfriend Jenn, but despite these very adult responsibilities Matt would often rather just be playing video games. Then there’s Devin, who is not related to anyone in the house, yet spends all his time there sleeping on the couch and eating their food. He’s known (affectionately?) as “The Mooch.”
Such a collection of lovable miscreants is plenty of fuel for drama, but that hasn’t stopped the criticism aimed at Southie Rules for being just another phony reality show. Leah doesn’t deny that there is a bit of performance involved , or even that the crew sometimes will suggest situations for the family to confront, but says that the essence of the show is true, and what viewers are seeing are genuine interactions.
“My experience was that we would hang out, they’d film us, sometimes it would be really boring, so every now and then they’d go, ‘Here’s the situation. What are you going to do?’” she says. “Like, with the bills, ‘How is Matt going to come up with the money? You guys figure it out and make it happen.’ So you just make it happen and when you hear a camera guy or a sound guy chuckle, you know you’re making sense and we’re not just sitting here bleeding out of our eyeballs waiting for something funny to happen. In the summer we were kinda guarded. When we first started filming I felt like we were still nervous that it could turn into a Jersey Shore. But then … it just became a funny project. It took on less of a serious tone, and we just started sharing lighter moments. I don’t know, something magic happened, and it’s just pure comedy. We had such a great time filming it. We stand behind Southie Rules 100 percent.”
Ah yes, the Jersey Shore thing. That was the name that kept coming up when the prospect of a South Boston reality show was being bandied about. It wasn’t just Leah’s family that was worried, but pretty much anybody she talked to in the neighborhood. But while viewers who were drawn to the loud and brash part of the MTV series that audiences loved to hate and hated to love will be pleased, they’ll have to look elsewhere to find the bad behavior.
“Watch the show before you judge it,” Leah says. “You see a family that loves each other. You see the hijinks and the different things that we go through to survive here. I don’t see as how people could get offended by our show, because we’re not portraying those stereotypes. We’re not pounding booze. No one is chugging a six-pack and crushing beer cans on their head. We’re not homophobic. We’re not racist. We’re not ignorant. My husband and I both graduated college. … When people think of Southie, they think of the young kids partying. That’s just not what we’re about. We’re a family that loves each other, that cares for each other, that gives each other a hard time. That’s the beautiful thing about this family, if you’ve got something going on positive or negative, there’s everybody else here to support you. If you’re having a bad day, we’re going to bring you out of that.”
Southie Rules premieres at 10 tonight on A&E.
Photos: ©2012 A+E Networks /Credit: Karolina Wojtasik