“Godfather of Pittsburgh” is a pithy title for A&E’s latest unscripted series, especially because “The Real Sopranos of Pittsburgh” probably wouldn’t have cleared legal. Viewers, however, will need to engage in wholesale suspension of disbelief to find much to get excited about in the life and business dealings of Vince Isoldi, who talks a lot about his checkered history but — given his stated commitment to staying legit for the family’s sake — seems unlikely to whack anybody, at least with the cameras rolling. That leaves a pretty scripted, clannish soap, albeit one where the family business is something called Club Erotica.
Yes, Isoldi might be legit, but his current sources of income include a strip club, which becomes the central point of tension in the premiere. That’s because his brother-in-law Sam has opened a similar establishment not far away, creating friction between the two, and prompting Isoldi to disown his sister, Rosa.
The dispute also ignites a reasonably epic verbal ruckus (OK, there’s a little shove thrown in) between Vince and Sam that contains enough bleeped expletives to rival any three episodes of “Jersey Shore.”
In terms of style, the bearish Isoldi speaks in a manner that sounds a bit like he’s doing a bad impersonation of Chazz Palminteri. Still, he loves his kids, even if one of his older sons gets into a fight, and his youngest one — just 11 years old — has been tasked with running dad’s limo business, and behaving like he’s a little adult. (If this is supposed to be cute, it isn’t.)
Rounding out the “Sopranos” parallels, Isoldi seeks counsel from his grizzled father-in-law, Junior Williams, who did time for racketeering; and has a blond trophy wife, Carla, who whips up big dinners for the family, one of which naturally devolves into another fight over excluding sis from the festivities.
Of course, drawing from cinematic sources of inspiration is a tried-and-true tactic in reality TV, offering viewers a kind of instant shorthand, which might explain why “Godfather of Pittsburgh” feels as if it can race through the character introductions and go directly into exploring side avenues like the, er, gentlemen’s club fracas and its colorful employees. (A&E, which will launch the show behind a “Growing Up Gotti” special, should expect complaints from Italian-American activist groups, who have grown understandably weary of such stereotyping, even if it’s ostensibly steeped in reality.)
Ultimately, buying into this “Godfather” will have less to do with its legitimacy than with the characters, and if nothing else, they’re a quarrelsome bunch. For those weaned on the mob dramas that the producers clearly use as a point of reference, however, this can’t help but feel less like bada-bing, and more like bada-bore.