It would be inaccurate to call “Gomorrah” the most recent of “The Wire’s” overseas progeny, given that the former premiered in Italy two years ago. But “Gomorrah” is among the most admirable of the latter-day “Wire” homages, one that throws in hearty helpings of Golden Age classics like “The Sopranos” and “The Shield.”
“Gomorrah” is a melancholy and yet clear-eyed assessment of many problems faced by contemporary Italians, and it’s fair to wonder if viewers who’ve been inundated with similar crime-saturated dramas over the past two decades will want to go down this bloody and litter-strewn road again. But for those in the market for a set of interlocking urban tales told with laconic spareness, quiet intensity, and exceptional tonal control, this show is a very worthwhile option.
Given how low-rated and relatively unlikely “The Wire’s” five-year run was, it’s worth pausing to note just how influential the show has become. America has flashier cultural exports, but at this stage, few beat David Simon’s creation for depth and breadth of influence. In the 14 years since the debut of the HBO classic, it has profoundly affected the course of dramatic television in the U.S., and even the also-rans that don’t quite reach “The Wire’s” exceptional level are usually worth watching. (“The Night Of” and “True Detective,” more recent HBO crime-oriented offerings, could be considered riffs on Simon’s original melody.)
It’s not surprising to see “The Wire’s” reach travel beyond North America, given that the drama’s engaging (and enraging) critique of societal inequity and uncaring institutions is relevant far beyond Baltimore, especially as the West is convulsed by waves of human migration, thorny terrorism concerns, and the post-Cold War evolution of organized crime.
The way “The Wire” dissected webs of corruption even as it created distinctive characters and deeply lived-in settings emerged as a hardy template, one that can be detected in a wide array of series from the U.K. and continental Europe in recent years. It’s apparent in everything from “The Bridge” (which spawned three versions depicting border trouble in six countries) to U.K. offerings like “Happy Valley” and “Broadchurch” to “The Last Panthers,” a French drama that reckoned with Europe’s immigration crisis and the lingering fallout from the Balkan wars. Sure, crime dramas were popular before and after “The Wire,” but all these programs share its devotion to granular levels of detail, exposition-averse dialogue, and a general avoidance of lecturing about morality.
“Gomorrah” begins its saga by introducing two made guys, Ciro (Marco D’Amore) and Attilio (Antonio Milo), who, under the right circumstances, would probably enjoy comparing notes with “The Wire’s” Bodie or McNulty. As Ciro and Attilio shoot the breeze at a gas station, Attilio complains about his daughter’s reliance on social media (a wise choice by the writers; it’s a worldwide complaint). His paternal affection is made clear by a later moment in which he watches his kids sing pop songs on a karaoke machine; it’s the kind of “show, don’t tell” scene that does more to establish a character than pages of expository dialogue.
The actors playing Ciro and Attilio quickly establish a warm father-son dynamic; the ways in which fathers and mentors hurt and help their sons and protegés is a theme that percolates quietly throughout “Gomorrah.” Ciro and Attilio are at different stages of life, but they are ultimately just working men trying to get by. And it doesn’t take long to find out that their particular line of work is by turns brutal and somehow banal (a lot of time is spent nursing beers and tiny cups of coffee).
As the first season progresses, the show widens its scope without losing its laser focus on how crime organizations wielding drug money and ruthless violence corrupt all kinds of people up and down the socioeconomic ladder — even as they provide a leg up to those on the very bottom. The drama follows the money, as it travels from poor neighborhoods inhabited by African immigrants to the posh offices of wheeler-dealers. While the series doesn’t necessarily sit in judgment of any of its characters, the less powerful usually come off better than do lawyers and accountants with expensive habits and questionable methods.
Ciro and Attilio’s boss, the grave and charismatic Pietro Savastano (Fortunato Cerlino), is under pressure from other bosses who want a piece of his kingdom; his spoiled son Gennaro, better known as Genny (Salvatore Esposito), cannot be relied upon to have a cool head in challenging situations. Eventually, greater responsibility falls on the shoulders of Pietro’s steely wife, Imma (Maria Pia Calzone), and on Ciro, played by D’Amore with admirable restraint and coiled, watchful intensity.
The poetry of “Gomorrah,” which, like the 2008 film, is based on a nonfiction book by Roberto Saviano, can be found in its observant details: The way a shady lawyer is filmed traversing a blocky stairway makes him look like a rodent in a maze; the gold finish of the mob boss’s hideous new couch evokes the crass splendor of Casa Soprano; the echo of Italian hip-hop tracks off the cement of high-rises brings to mind similar buildings in Baltimore, Marseilles, Naples, and Chicago. Kids fight over who gets to be lookout, gun violence is shocking and yet not uncommon, and prison inmates segregate themselves by race — but make overtures to each other when they have economic incentive to do so. A memorable series of prison sequences evoke “Orange Is the New Black,” and the power struggles in the “Gomorrah” prison reflect the broader question of who really controls Italian society, both inside and outside of the crumbling jail.
Lest anyone think that “Gomorrah” paints all Italians with a broad brush — an unfair charge occasionally lodged against “The Sopranos” when that show was at its height — the Italian drama makes it clear that there are men and women at every level of society who make every effort to obey the law. Pietro’s foot soldiers often feel trapped by the system of violence and vengeance in which they are enmeshed, and even Pietro himself, locked in a series of grinding conflicts with the authorities and other bosses, sighs, “I’m tired.”
It would be easy for “Gomorrah” to use the hapless Genny, who wears rumpled track suits and thick gold rings, as comic relief. But he occasionally has good ideas that his father ignores, and the fact that the coddled heir-apparent doesn’t have the stomach for the kind of daily brutality that Ciro and Pietro take for granted ultimately begins to take on an air of tragedy.
“Gomorrah” is mostly a male-driven series at first, but the resourceful Imma gets more screen time as the narrative picks up momentum. She and Ciro circle each other with a mixture of wariness and need; as setbacks afflict the criminal clan, the two need each other more, but neither one fully trusts anyone else. Pietro and Imma, like so many other characters in crime dramas throughout the ages, want to clean up the family’s money and put it into respectable businesses. The fact that it’s often easy to do so is troubling, but even in the realms of real estate and finance, garden-variety greed throws obstacles in the Savastano clan’s path.
If “Gomorrah” has a flaw, it’s that the contours of the story feel distinctly familiar, even if the criminals, housing projects, and slick lawyers have unfamiliar names. The drama ultimately revolves around white men who cannot break free from a cycle of machismo-driven vengeance, and it hasn’t been exactly hard to find that kind of story on the big or small screen in the past few decades. Even so, the rich texture of the color-saturated world created by writer Stefano Bises and directors Stefano Sollima, Francesca Comencini, and Claudio Cupellini is easy to admire. We’ve been here before, but these tour guides have fresh intelligence.