They say that the worst thing you can ever do when sitting down to watch a TV series you’ve never seen before is to watch a show that deals with a culture you know well. Because the chances are overwhelming that the writers won’t get anywhere near close to the reality you know. Growing up in a Romnichal Gypsy family I am, of course, used to screenwriters getting it wrong. Or, I guess I should say, grew used to screenwriters not getting the Gypsy life I knew right. Which would be Dixie Gypsy culture. Something distinctly different from urban Gypsy life. That said, I have to say that it really doesn’t bother me to watch a TV show about Gypsies that bear little resemblance (I certainly can’t say the writers usually get it completely wrong) to the Gypsy life I knew.
The Andy Griffith Show
The Gypsies that come to visit Mayberry are probably the closest thing to TV Gypsies representing the culture I grew up in. I was born a generation too late to experience the constant movement from one place to another that the older members of my family knew. As an example of what I mean by that, I had three Aunts and each one of the four sisters was born in a different city, stretching from Billings to Atlanta. The Gypsies that make camp outside Mayberry and make life miserable for Sheriff Taylor with their seemingly miraculous weather predictions are actually more representative of my grandmother’s Gypsy culture than my mother’s and certainly not mine. What is exactly spot-on in the TV Gypsies that visit Mayberry is the fact that they cheat. Their weather forecasts are so accurate not because of any intrinsic gift, but because they secretly consult a ham radio. Yeah, I know Gypsies like that very well.
The Street of San Francisco
Those urban Gypsies I mentioned earlier? The ones I know nothing about personally? Like those portrayed in the movie “King of the Gypsies.” Well, they show up in the San Francisco in the early 70s when Michael Douglas was just a sidekick to Karl Malden. While I feel disconnected from the urban Gypsies portrayed here, I do feel a certain fellowship with the generation divide. The young Gypsies are harder, rougher and more prone to bigger criminal enterprises than suits the patriarch of the old guard. The only problem is that you could substitute Italian Mafioso of the 1940s or urban gangstas of today into this plot and change only the looks and lingo. Then again, as I said, I don’t really know the urban Gypsy culture so for all I know this episode of “The Streets of San Francisco” qualifies as one of the most authentic portraits of Gypsies in TV history.
Leave it to “Barney Miller” to do for Gypsies what all those dramas failed to do. You will find no shortage of TV shows dealing with Holocaust survivors who are Jewish. Start a search for a TV show episode that deals with the fact that a million Gypsies were gassed by the Nazis and while you may not end with “Barney Miller” you will almost certain begin there. The detectives of the 12th precinct bring in an older gentlemen who has been harassing a seemingly nice little old toy salesman of novelty items. The harmless toy salesman turns out to have been a guard at the concentration camp at Birkenau. Not only should “Barney Miller” be commended for giving much-needed exposure to the Gypsy victims of the Holocaust, but unlike a certain especially repellent movie that inexplicably garnered an Oscar for Kate Winslet, the guard is not let off the hook for his past regardless of whichever of the thousand reasons such despicable persons try using for that purpose.
Important, it is, to keep in mind that Gypsies are called Travelers and Traveling People for a reason. While my family migrated from Europe to Dixie, others stopped before they even made to the U.S. border. Canadians may be exceptionally polite people in most cases, but if you go by “Murdoch Mysteries” they share one of the few things that binds the people of all countries together: fear, mistrust and hatred of Gypsies. The Gypsies camped outside Inspector Murdoch’s Victorian Toronto are easy fall guys for a mysterious robbery during the midst of a heated Mayoral election. What the writers of “Murdoch Mysteries” got right that so many others get wrong is that Gypsies are a matriarchal culture and therefore the whole concept of King of the Gypsies is just plain silly considered that such a king would be way too lazy to rule. The real work in Gypsy culture is done by the women and the writers of the episode not only get it but are confident enough to make typical oversight of this fact a point of humor. Inspector Murdoch’s boss, who just happens to be one of the candidates for Mayor, specifically asks the Gypsy matriarch if she is the Queen of the Gypsies. To which she beautifully replies by asking if he is the King of the Police.
The League of Gentlemen
The ancestry of circus owner Papa Lazarou on the British series “The League of Gentlemen” is notoriously murky, but at least his initial appearance indicates he spent some time with English Gypsies even if he is not necessarily one himself. His predilection for collecting wives harkens back to the fear (not entirely unsubstantiated) of Gypsies stealing young girls to make them the wives of the older members of the clan. His sideline selling pegs door to door is most definitely very much in line with Gypsy culture. His wives’ utter fakery in fortune telling abilities and his own self-proclaimed ability to speak to the dead are both part of the Gypsy DNA.