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Case Number 16823: Small Claims Court

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The Mafia

History Channel // 2009 // 650 Minutes // Not Rated
Reviewed by Judge Victor Valdivia (Retired) // July 16th, 2009

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All Rise...

Judge Victor Valdivia is a legitimate businessman, but can't explain why his business partners keep "amicably departing."

The Charge

The coldblooded history of the Mob.

The Case

Coldblooded it may be, but complete it certainly isn't. There are some excellent programs on The Mafia, a new set from History, but it's hard not to wish it was longer. It's four discs' worth of Mafia-related shows that aired on the History and Biography channels, and the selection is pretty good. If you bought the previous A&E two-disc set Mafia: The History of the Mob in America, you can upgrade it to this one and get some worthy content as a bonus. Those who have already collected History's Mafia shows, on the other hand, will be disappointed that this set is missing some important shows. It's a very good primer for viewers interested in organized crime, and the shows compiled here are actually mostly taken from the period when History and A&E put out intelligent and creative nonfiction programming, but it should have been bigger and more complete than it is.

Here are the shows compiled on four discs:

Disc One

• "The Prohibition Years"
Prohibition gives the rising new breed of Sicilian gangs a lucrative business.

• "Birth of the American Mafia"
Lucky Luciano and Meyer Lansky conceive of an idea: a national criminal organization that is run and designed like an American corporation.

• "The Kennedys and the Mob"
Bootlegger Joseph Kennedy becomes a rich man dealing with the mob and funds his sons' political careers.

Disc Two

• "Unions and the Mob"
Mafia bosses and enforcers are present at the birth of the labor movement and inflict terrible damage on unions and their members.

• "Empire of Crime"
World War II marks the turning point when the Mafia turns from a criminal underworld into a national menace with the ability to intimidate even the federal government.

Disc Three

• "Lucky Luciano: Chairman of the Mob"
Lucky Luciano has a vision of the Mafia becoming a more structured and profitable organization that values skill over tribal affiliation.

• "Meyer Lansky: Mob Tycoon"
Meyer Lansky creates an intricate and lucrative web of casinos and businesses that make the Mafia more profitable than some major corporations.

• "Genovese: Portrait of a Crime Family"
Known as the most elite of the five crime families in New York, the Genovese family has always boasted some of the shrewdest and most feared members in Mafia history.

• "Bugsy Siegel"
A mob hit man with a violent temper, Siegel became a household name when he moved out West and decided to launch a tony casino in Las Vegas.

Disc Four

• "Al Capone and the Machine Gun Massacre"
On Valentine's Day, 1928, Al Capone lured seven of his fiercest rivals into one of the most brutal massacres in U.S. history.

• "America and the Mob: Wartime Friends"
During WWII, the federal government cut several deals with Mafia warlord Lucky Luciano to protect U.S. property and personnel both here and in Italy.

• "The Gambinos: First Family of Crime"
Carlo Gambino, maybe the most powerful crime boss in New York, built a criminal empire that would rule the city without restraint until his successors Paul Castellano and John Gotti eventually destroyed it.

The contents of the first two discs, collectively released as the Mafia set, are very good. Because these shows were originally aired in 1993, they do have some dated information, especially on the Kennedys episode, but for the most part they tell this story thoroughly. The history of how Luciano and Lansky turned the Mafia into a criminal machine, with clearly delineated responsibilities, territories, and hierarchies, is explained in an entertaining manner. The episode on the links between the Mafia and unions is particularly impressive, relating some horrifying stories about the conditions of workers in the Mafia's peak years of influence. Some of the conjectures about the Kennedy assassination on the Kennedys episode have been debunked, but for the most part these are excellent historical episodes, with none of the cheesy reenactments or pointless celeb interviews that have marred recent History productions.

It's the content on the other two discs that's slightly disappointing. The shows on Luciano, Lansky, and Siegel all fill in more stories and details than on the Mafia discs. These are also very informative and enjoyable, but there's a lot of repetition between these and the earlier shows. In fact, there are some stories that you'll hear as many as four times over. Granted, they are amazing and interesting stories (especially when you learn about what a shockingly sweet deal Luciano negotiated during World War II) but the repetition starts to wear thin by the third retelling. Even the program on the Valentine's Day Massacre repeats some of the stories told earlier. Though the episodes on the first two discs only mention Al Capone in a few spots since they concentrate almost exclusively on the Mafia's presence in New York City, almost all of the stories on those discs are retold in this show.

This repetition would not be so noticeable if the box wasn't incomplete. The set's biggest flaw is that only the episodes about the Gambino and Genovese crime families have any content about the Mafia after the '60s. These are very good shows but they're not enough. The Genovese show is only 45 minutes long and, apart from discussing the strange and fascinating case of Genovese boss Vincent Gigante (who, for legal reasons, pretended to be, but really wasn't, mentally impaired), it mostly retells yet again the lives of Luciano and Lansky. The show on the Gambinos is the best—it not only explains how Carlo Gambino built the biggest crime family in NYC, but it also explains how his two successors suffered from gaping personality flaws that led to their downfalls. For a set that's meant to be somewhat comprehensive, however, it's a bad idea that these are the only programs with content about the modern Mafia. Plus, they both end in the mid-'90s-surely more has happened since then? The Biography channel, which originally produced the shows on the third disc, has also aired extensive programs on Castellano, Gotti, and Sammy Gravano, Gotti's underboss. History has also produced a couple of shows called Godfathers, one of which was available, along with the content on the third disc, in a set called The Godfathers Collection. These programs have plenty of information on the modern Mafia in the era of The Sopranos. Why aren't they included in this set?

The only extra, included on the second disc, is interesting but it will just whet your appetite for more shows that don't repeat the same stories. "Mob Hit Men" relates the story of a hit man for the Philadelphia mob during a series of bloody gang wars in the '80s and '90s. This is another superb program, and the stories about the daily routines and techniques used by a top Mafia hit man are appropriately harrowing. Why it's considered an "extra" is a mystery. This set should have had more shows like this, since this one actually tells a whole new and interesting story.

Ultimately, The Mafia is not a bad set. It's certainly got some excellent shows and is packed with plenty of information that will appeal to both true-crime buffs and novices alike. It's just that it's not comprehensive enough. There are too many important programs and stories left off this set, making it less thorough than it should be. This is an important topic, one that History has done very well over the years, so it would have made sense for History to spring for more than just four discs. Why not make this set eight discs long and include more of the content left off? History spent eight discs on its Prehistoric Collection set and those shows were hugely inferior to the ones seen here. The Mafia is a generally solid set and anyone who's interested in the subject matter should check it out, but it's too bad that viewers whose interest is piqued by these shows will have to do more research on their own to fill in the holes left here.

The Verdict

Not guilty because it includes some great shows, but guilty of not including more great shows.

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Scales of Justice

Judgment: 80

Perp Profile

Studio: History Channel
Video Formats:
• Full Frame
Audio Formats:
• Dolby Digital 2.0 Stereo (English)
• None
Running Time: 650 Minutes
Release Year: 2009
MPAA Rating: Not Rated
• Crime
• Documentary
• Historical
• Television

Distinguishing Marks

• Bonus Episode

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