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MY BIG FAT GYPSY WEDDING
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People love to steal a peek inside secret societies and closed worlds. The Italian mafia, the Freemasons, the Vatican, the Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous — you name it, if there's a velvet rope blocking the door to keep regular folk out, we're always itching to speculate on what's going on inside. Here, TLC — rapidly cementing its place as The Freak Show Channel, with more weird medical and mental conditions per hour than any other network on cable — gives viewers a look inside one of the world's most secretive groups with the new show "My Big Fat Gypsy Wedding." While that title sounds deceptively festive, the show is actually some of the strangest viewing on TV: a rare, behind-the-scenes window into the world of Europe's Irish Travelers. Secretive, full of cultural quirks and harboring what seems to be a strange duality about sex, the Travelers have purposely made themselves social outcasts for centuries. Even though their lifestyles suggest many of them are flush with disposable cash, most of them prefer to live in what we would consider to be camping trailers — a throwback to the days of horse-drawn wagons. Girls are married off well before they're 18 (often after they've quit school at a young age to help care for their siblings) and weddings and first communions are lavish to say the least, with little girls and brides often wearing custom-designed dresses that weigh more than they do and including hundreds of yards of fabric, flashing lights, and imported crystal embellishments. Unmarried Traveler girls aren't supposed to be seen alone in public and adhere to fairly strict rules concerning the opposite sex to avoid being "scandalized," but when they go to a club, the young women (the ones on the show, at least) dress in spangled hot pants and elaborate makeup like they're going to Carneval in Rio, and when they get there, they dance like strippers. Like I said: Weird. Definitely worth a look, just for the sheer voyeurism of it all, and to remind ourselves that the Good Old Way of doing things ain't always the best.
KEN BURNS': THE WAR
n A few weeks back, I reminded you of Ken Burns' excellent series "The Civil War," which pretty much rewrote the book on what a historical documentary could be when it appeared on PBS back in 1990. Given my love and admiration for his work, I'd be remiss if I didn't give just as much space for his 2007 mini-series "The War," which is available in its seven-part entirety on Netflix. It's built around a premise as equally brilliant as "The Civil War," which is this: To encapsulate the loss, fear, courage and triumph of the vast conflict of World War II by looking at the war through the lens of four American towns: Luverne, Minn.; Mobile, Ala.; Sacramento, Calif., and Waterbury, Conn. Using war diaries, moving first-person recollections of young soldiers grown old, artifacts and histories of families from those towns, Burns pulls off a kind of miracle: He makes the War — 50-odd years fought by then — real again for Americans who have never known that kind of national commitment and sacrifice. As in "The Civil War," Burns draws on some of the best voice talent in the business, with letters and newspaper clippings read by folks like Tom Hanks, Samuel L. Jackson, and Adam Arkin, and principal narration by Keith David. By the time Burns' searing exploration of that most crucial crossroads of the 20th century came out in 2007, cable TV giants like The History Channel and The Military Channel had long since cracked the bones of World War II and used the marrow to sell commemorative plates and dish soap. That — along with more entertainment choices and the public suffering from hardcore Nazi Fatigue thanks to cable TV — was probably why the ratings weren't as big for "The War" as they had been for "The Civil War." They should have been, however, because it's nothing short of excellent. Catch it now on Netflix. If you're a history buff, you won't be sorry.
— David Koon