LANCASTER, Pa. — Like a bully who can spot his next victim, reality television has set its beady eyes on the Amish. High ratings for Breaking Amish on TLC — a show that brought young men and women to New York for a taste of bikinis, mechanical bulls, and lap dances — have paved the way for Amish Mafia, which began Wednesday on Discovery.
The truth of the events portrayed in Breaking Amish has been widely contested, and the veracity of this new show is likely to be the subject of just as much debate. What can’t be argued is that both take their cues from Hollywood. Breaking was the story of the bumpkin let loose in the big city, like Babe with people instead of a pig, while Mafia is thugs in black felt hats. It’s the anti-Witness.
The stars of Amish Mafia are four supposed fixers in Lancaster County, Pa., a crew that is said to help maintain order in this insular religious community by doing the dirty work that the church elders can't be associated with. In the first episode these jobs include tracking down the driver of a car who ran into a buggy and leaning on a community leader who's slipping away to a motel for regular visits with a prostitute.
An early credit warns of “select re-enactments,” and since we’re never later told whether we’re watching staged scenes, it’s fairly safe to assume that everything is staged. (A closing credit clarifies that “re-creations are based on eyewitness accounts, testimonials, and the legend of the Amish Mafia.”)
The fictional vibe is reinforced by the clumsiness of the shakedowns, which seem stiff and awkward even for Amish country, and by the enthusiasm with which the four principals break the law on camera: shooting out a car window, cutting off a suspected adulterer’s buggy on the road, and forcing their way into someone else’s motel room.
Reality TV doesn’t get much cheaper or crasser than this, and just to clinch its rock-bottom status, the show fills out its picture of rural menace by momentarily citing the 2006 mass shooting at a Lancaster County Amish school.
Mostly, though, it gives us repeated images of its rural desperados waving shotguns and assault rifles and making threatening gestures with baseball bats. (The only time a weapon is used in anger is against that defenseless windshield.)
Mafia is supposedly about protecting the Amish, but of course the primary victims here are the Amish.
What little tension the series generates depends on portraying them as backward and helpless, and on playing off their reputation for simplicity and rectitude by depicting them as philandering frauds.
There’s some low comedy in the methods the “mafia” employ, staking out a motel like B-movie private eyes and enforcing church rules against adultery as if they were a Muslim morality squad administering Shariah law.
The best ally of the Amish in this situation is reality TV’s short attention span — before long they’ll be in the rearview mirror, along with ginormous families, pit bulls, and the state of Alaska.
Not that that will be much consolation during the scene in which the four men chosen to represent them to the rest of the world stand in a pasture betting on which cow will be next to contribute to the field’s fertilization.
“Amish Mafia” airs at 9 p.m. Wednesdays on the Discovery Channel.