Judge Neal Masri says Tom Evangelista knows best.
"Some people call us Bounty Hunters, but to me, we're just a family."—Tom Evanagalista
HBO takes a whack at the family-based reality show with Family Bonds: The Complete First Season. While the Evangelista family is not rich or famous like the Osbournes, they have almost as many tattoos.
Facts of the Case
The daily life of a bail bondsman is probably a bit more exciting than your workaday routine, or mine. To paraphrase a bit of wisdom from Repo Man, a regular person spends his day avoiding tense situations; a bail bondsmen spends his day getting into tense situations. However, the creators of the show want us to see that Evangalistas, beneath it all, are a typical suburban brood. What's more, under their seemingly rough exterior lies a caring and close-knit family.
HBO tries something new with Family Bonds. Normally, the classy premium network reserves its original series for gritty drama or edgy comedy. With Family Bonds, they give us a fly-on-the-wall reality show. Even though it is sold as a documentary series, Family Bonds is a typical reality show—insofar as anyone is "real" with a cameraman, lighting guy, and mike boom operator hanging around.
The Evangelistas are a middle class, Long Island family with a somewhat unusual family business: bail bonds. Family Bonds: The Complete First Season culls nearly a year of footage into 10 half-hour episodes. The star of the show is the head of the Evangelista household and owner of All City Bail Bonds, Tom Evangelista. Tom is crusty, described by the producers as having "anger issues."
His business is staffed almost entirely by relatives including his son, sister in law, daughter, and nephew Chris. Chris and the rest of the family members get almost as much screen time as Tom as the season rolls along. The show focuses increasingly on family over the course of its run. The early episodes concentrate on the business, but as time goes on, the personal stories of the extended Evangelista family become the focus.
If you're looking for Dog the Bounty Hunter-style fugitive capturing action, you're in for a disappointment here. The early episodes feature a couple of recoveries, but after that, not much bad guy apprehending occurs. Storylines include daughter Dana's pregnancy, Chris's search for love following a divorce, and son Sal's quest to pass his bail bond test. Also of note are some interesting bits filmed in the salon where wife Flo gets her manicures. It's like Sex and the City transported to Long Island.
This change of focus from fugitive chasing to personal stories raises an interesting point about Family Bonds in particular and reality shows in general: Content is determined in the editing booth. Check the credits of some of your favorite reality shows and you'll find that many of them list writers. Writers on a reality show? You figure it out. Family Bonds does not list a writer in the credits. In lieu of writing, a show like Family Bonds comes together in the editing room. Many hundreds of hours of footage are shot, and the editor chooses the storylines and determines how people are portrayed. Five minutes can be selected from anyone's day and make them look like a saint or a jerk.
What comes through in this series is a charming contrast: The Evangelistas may be rough around the edges and in an odd business, but beneath the surface Tom Evangelista is a traditional partriach. He's Robert Young, only with nipple piercings and the legal right to bust into your house in the middle of the night. Over the course of ten episodes we learn a lot about the Evangelistas. Mainly, that Tom is a sucker for his wife and kids. His tough guy bail bondsman façade, tattoos, and piercings belie a typical put upon suburban dad. In the end, Tom's love and dedication is what holds the business and the family together. This is a cut above your typical exploitative reality show.
Family Bonds: The Complete First Season offers a commentary by director Steven Cantor, producer Matthew Galkin, and editor Pax Wasserman on Episode one. They talk a bit about how they found the Evangelistas and how the focus of the show did indeed change as time went on. They also talk about how Tom and crew constantly got lost on the way to most every recovery. It's a wonder they ever captured anyone.
Further, we have a featurette entitled Family Unfiltered that gives some candid moments with the Evangelistas, and a few interviews with the producers. The featurette is about eight minutes long and gives mostly a look at production. The second featurette on the disc is Family Business, which introduces the staff of All City Bail Bonds and looks more closely at the business. This featurette, quite frankly, is how I pictured the show would be rather than the family dramedy which it became. There is also a family album with some old Evangelista family photos. Vintage pictures of a young Tom and Flo are particularly amusing.
Recently, an interesting coda to this series aired on HBO, entitled Family Bonds: the Final Episode. It offered a sentimental wrap up to the stories in Season One (presumably the only season judging by the fact it is called the final episode). It would have been nice to have this included on this DVD set.
Family Bonds was recorded on tape and, as such, has a video-like image. Don't expect the crisp beauty of a feature film or even the fine DVD images of other HBO shows like Deadwood or The Sopranos. However, the video suits the documentary/reality content just fine. Audio, as you might expect, is not an exceedingly dynamic affair. Some music accentuates the action and kicks in the subwoofer, but that's about it.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
The creators reveal in their commentary that this project originated as a documentary film of about two hours. A two-hour feature could have probably given us a good portrait of the Evangelista family. A run of 10 half-hour episodes is on the long side.
The Evangelistas make for an interesting few hours of viewing. They're eccentric without being so far out as to be unrelatable. However, I would have liked to have seen a bit more action in the fugitive recovery department.
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