For much of the first episode of “Southie Rules,” the show’s producers provide subtitles. As if the Southie accent — dropping the “r,” saying “wicked” and “doll-ahs,” and yelling “Ma!” — is hard to understand. Maybe I’ve lived in Boston too long, but I don’t find it hard at all to comprehend the characters on the A&E reality show, which premieres Tuesday night at 10. Lines such as “Where are you going?” and “This is going just swimmingly” — they’re pretty easy to follow if you know how to speak English.
But the subtitles are part of the producers’ strained effort to make Southie seem exotic and interesting. OK, we get it, Southie is a neighborhood of triple-deckers and tough-talking men and women who hate yuppies and love sports. We get it, we get it, people were entertained by “The Departed” and “The Fighter” and “Mystic River” and are familiar with the Wahlbergs. And yes, the Southie accent and attitude — fierce, and fiercely loyal — can be really funny. Just check out the “The Real Housewives of South Boston,” a YouTube series from the comedy team Paulilu. It’s spot on and hysterical.
But just the fact of Southie is not enough to drive a whole TV series week in and week out, is it? Can you build a good show around an accent? After the first few minutes, you really need to have characters and a story, too.
“Southie Rules” definitely has the characters. That’s the positive news. The show revolves around the Niedzwiecki family, who all live under the same Southie roof. They own a tattoo and body-piercing parlor, although, for effect, lest we think they have too much money to be authentic, the show doesn’t explain that in the premiere. Camille is the matriarch with a no-bull exterior but a soft inside, and she is married to the quieter Walter. Her children are Leah, Jonathan, and Matt, all of whom have live-in partners. There are grandchildren, as well as a stray dude named Devin, whose role is to eat the Niedzwiecki’s food, sleep on their couch, and make fun of Jonathan and Matt. The producers have a good time with descriptors, as Devin’s screen labels include “Matt’s Live-In Best Friend” and “Da Pimp.”
The whole clan reminds me of the Gallagher family in “Shameless,” the great Showtime series set in a Chicago version of Southie. Even the opening moments of “Southie Rules” carry shades of the “Shameless” title credits, as the Niedzwieckis all need to use the bathroom at the same time. They’re all extroverts, always ready to yell at one another and play to the cameras, and they are natural fodder for reality TV. Matt and his girlfriend Jennifer are major screw-ups, the muscular Jonathan is well intentioned if not always successful, and Leah is capable of shutting everyone down with a withering look. Devin, meanwhile, is ever the mooch and the jokester.
But story? “Southie Rules” is woefully short on story line, and so the producers have clearly set up situations and edited episodes in order to provide viewers with a narrative. I know, that’s very old news when it comes to reality TV. But it’s done here without any subtlety, as the premiere follows Matt and Jonathan trying to get money to pay the bills. There is no significant mention of the tattoo parlor, so it seems as though Matt absolutely needs to sell his mother’s famous meatballs while Jonathan needs to sell his secret stash of antiques. The concept of the show is that real Southie folks hate yuppies — these guys don’t even know what shallots are! — so the producers want to show us the Niedzwieckis scrambling for cash.
The plot is clearly mapped out so that when Matt and Jennifer fail with the meatballs, an alternative plan is at the ready. And it all builds up to a painfully artificial twist that would probably raise Freud’s eyebrows, assuming he could understand what they were saying.