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March 15, 2012 | 12:00 a.m. CST
Each Week, ten of America’s top 20 TV shows are crime dramas, which signal a national passion for criminals as long as they’re not in our neighborhood. No fictional or true crime grips our attention quite like the Mafia. Maybe it’s the secrecy, the close family bonds or the Italian flare, but the mob definitely intrigues. VH1’s ratings soared in the first quarter of 2012 as the second season of Mob Wives shot up 50 percent and helped the station win the 18 to 49 female demographic.
This Mafia obsession stretches far beyond Hollywood’s fabricated reality and the glare of the screen. In February, former New York crime boss Michael Franzese brought some of that mystery to Columbia when he made his second stop in town, three times less than the number of times he’s been indicted by a federal grand jury.
Although it’s made him famous, Franzese isn’t a fan of society’s infatuation with the lifestyle. “You’re becoming desensitized to murder because you see it everywhere,” he says. “The worst thing that could ever happen to you in your life is to be standing next to somebody when that person gets murdered, and God forbid you’re the one holding the knife or pulling the trigger.”
However gruesome the reality, the ex-Mafioso has quite the fan club of curious spectators here for his story. The audience included frail women with walkers, scruffy construction workers in stained, tattered hoodies, soccer moms, football dads, teachers and hippies. Before the show, Franzese peeked his head with its grizzled hair around the stage curtain to look at the crowd filling the lower level of Jesse Auditorium.
A mobster, even a retired one, doesn’t walk into a room without knowing who might be waiting for him. “Oh my god, there he is,” squealed a petite twenty-something woman. After all, what’s better than a reformed bad boy who still has the rugged charm to create excitement faster than he used to line his pockets with racketeering cash — $5 to 8 million per week, if you’re wondering.
Yet, it seemed odd that the sigh of adoration and schoolgirl lust was aimed at a convicted felon who won’t even discuss the number of people he’s murdered. Following its recent success, Mob Wives drew ire from mafia victims who claimed that the show ignored the criminal actions committed by those involved. Gawker.com even asked, “Would anyone watch a show called Mass Murderers’ Wives?”
Judging by the extensive crowd at Franzese’s presentation, the intrigue outweighs the infractions. Few seemed to care what Franzese was really here to talk about — how he turned his life around. Instead the audience wanted to hear the gritty details of his time as the “Yuppie Don,” masterminding gas rackets and securing millions of dollars for the Colombo family.
“I still can’t figure out how he was able to walk away from it,” attendee Brad Calder commented to his wife, Debbie. Franzese doesn’t work for the mob or the feds, and he doesn’t really answer the question about how he made it out. “I know how to take the Fifth; I’ve done it many times in my life,” he says.
Barring murder, most people can’t deny the luster of the Mafia life with its mystery, excitement, excess and free-flowing money. Everything you want is at your fingertips, and people have your back. Ordinary lawful life in Columbia and even beyond is hardly as enticing, so we live vicariously through the exploits of others where we don’t have to think about the consequences. This comfortable distance, however, creates its own repercussions because being too far removed obstructs the whole picture.