Aside from consciously evoking a popular movie title and giving headline writers fits, “My Big Fat American Gypsy Wedding” is just TLC’s latest subcultural oddity — presented, much like “Sister Wives,” as the TV equivalent of a carnival sideshow. Predicated on a U.K. concept, the show ostensibly seeks to be respectful in tone, but awkwardly winds up immersed in the “drama” of mid-teenage girls being showcased and married off, which can’t help but feel creepy. Then again, like a lot of TLC fare, being creeped out is the whole gist of its appeal.
“It’s a secret community,” the narration states near the outset, promising “unprecedented access” to “the mysterious world of American Gypsies,” living in places like West Virginia and Georgia.
Yet while the subject matter calls for a detached, almost anthropological view — as in “My, what strange habits some primates have” — “MBFAGW” (can’t wait for the promotional caps) tries to have its wedding cake, as it were, and eat it. Rooted in reality-TV conventions, the episodes subtly attempt to build tension around the elaborate parties the Gypsies throw to wed or display their eligible daughters, as well as the challenges faced by Boston-based dressmaker, Sondra Celli, who creates lavish gowns for these events.
While the premiere features 17-year-old Shyanne, who is about to marry a lad to whom she became engaged after two encounters, the second episode even more uncomfortably centers on Priscilla, 14, who is being trotted out to find husband material at a Halloween costume party. Her father, known as “Pat Baby,” sounds like he’s going to shed tears of joy when he sees her dressed like what resembles a Dallas Cowboys cheerleader.
As distasteful as much of this is, the show would be on considerably steadier ground if it didn’t offer comments buying into these situations, like noting Priscilla is “looking stunning in her flamboyant dress.”
Although the Gypsy girls are kitted-out provocatively, they make a point of noting they are expected to remain virgins until their wedding, while Gypsy boys are apparently welcome to cat around with non-Gypsy girls, who are perceived as being willing and available.
Viewers, of course, are supposed to be moderately horrified, which is precisely the sort of strong emotion and morbid curiosity into which TLC hopes to tap. And while that strategy has worked pretty well in the past, in the process, the channel sacrificed its right to wear a white dress a long, long time ago.