The new A&E show Wahlburgers brands itself as a "real life reality series," but it's really just one long commercial and/or recruitment video for the restaurant that bears the same name. It's not a terrible show per se, and the Wahlberg family matriarch Alma with her thick Boston accent ("I BEG YA PAH-DON, " "That's MAHK when he was doin' The Perfect Staaaahm) and lovingly no-nonsense demeanor is certainly a delight to watch, but this is as glossy (quite literally, as the camera looks like it was doused in Vaseline), low stakes and carefully produced and edited as a reality show can be.
Wahlburgers follows Paul Wahlberg, the mild-mannered, hard-working and less famous Wahlberg sibling (for now) as he operates his expanding Boston burger joint. Brothers Mark and Donnie are co-owners, while mother Alma works as a hostess at another Wahlberg establishment (one named after her). Paul and Alma are front and center for most of the one-hour series premiere, but Mark and Donnie pop up, too, as does the real-life inspiration for Entourage sidekick Johnny Drama. And, therein lies the biggest problem with Wahlburgers: it tries to pass itself off as a behind-the-scenes look at the lives of the Wahlberg clan, but when everyone is draped in Wahlburgers hats and jackets while they talk about their family history, you can't help but feel like they're trying to get you to have a Pavlovian response to a Boston accent. "Pahk the cah in Hahvahd yaaaaahd" and you'll suddenly be craving a juicy Wahlburger.
That's not to say the Wahlbergs' rags-to-riches tale isn't admirable (the nine-children clan grew up with next to nothing in middle class suburb Dorchester) or that the family hasn't overcome their share of heartbreaking obstacles (Wahlberg sibling Debbie passed away the very same day Mark's daughter was born). In fact, their tale of humble beginnings and various struggles (Mark's multiple arrests as a youth are mentioned, though the details of his crimes are not) are what's truly worthy of a reality show here. Certainly, the Wahlberg restaurants would have to be part of telling that story, but when you throw in painfully staged "problems" (Johnny Drama wants to eat for free! Paul won't open up to his sassy new assistant!) and the possible expansion of Wahlbugers (not that celebrity-owned franchises haven't failed before, but if Wahlburgers does tank, it's hard to imagine they won't all bounce back), it all feels painfully forced.
Fans of Mark and Donnie Wahlberg will undoubtedly get a kick out of watching the brothers squabble with each other about who their mother's favorite son is (a running joke throughout the family, and the entire episode, is that Alma changes her favorite son based on whoever she's talking to in that moment). Some of the childhood stories about the Wahlberg clan are certainly amusing (their 5 o'clock family dinners were boisterous, Paul was a clumsy child, etc.), but when Paul and Alma go to their old Dorchester home and are standing outside looking in, it's exactly how it feels as a viewer. You get a taste of the Wahlberg family, but not much more.
The Wahlbergs put a huge emphasis on the importance of family (it's one of the many themes that's repeated over and over during the course of the premiere), especially when mixing them with business. I don't have a shadow of doubt in my mind that these people all genuinely love and care for each other and have come out swinging on the other side of some truly dark times, but if they can effortlessly mix business and family, why even throw reality television into the pot? I'm glad Wahlburgers is not another nasty, bottom-of-the-barrel sad reality TV spectacle, but when it's as obviously staged and pristine as this one, it can often feel just as manipulative. (In next week's episode, Donnie brings his girlfriend Jenny McCarthy around to meet his family for the first time, but nothing about it feels authentic.) I like the Wahlbergs enough and I think they just might have a fascinating story to tell, but rather than put it through their own lens (Mark is an executive producer on the series and much like Beyonce's Life is But a Dream HBO movie, everything looks pretty swell, even the bad stuff), it would almost be better to watch their story from the outside rather than pretend we're on the inside with them.
MOST RECENT POSTS