NEW YORK HILLBILLIES

By ADAM BUCKMAN
NY Post.com

March 4, 2003 -- ITALIANS take it on the chin once again in ABC's new reality series "The Family."

This is the show that takes 10 members of a middle-class American family and deposits them in the midst of opulence - in this case, a Palm Beach estate - where they'll compete for possession of a $1 million "trust."

It premieres tonight with bronzed bon vivant George Hamilton as host.

I've come across worse ideas for a reality show. The gimmick here can be summed up in three words - blood or money - as viewers are invited to watch as family members decide how far they each should go to cheat their loved ones out of a fortune.

Tonight's premiere is not without entertainment value, but at the same time, the family - which happens to be Italian-American with various members from Brooklyn, Staten Island, Manhattan and Jersey - comes across as an unfortunate stereotype.

When Aunt Donna insnooty French chef to lay structs the mansion's in supplies for sauce and braciole, he snobbishly rolls his eyes.

It's meant to illustrate just how low-class and gauche Aunt Donna and her family are when they say they prefer their macaroni over Chef Franck's frog's legs. (Well, who wouldn't?)

Family conflict in "The Family" is underscored at one point by the sound of a thinly disguised tarantella, and even the lettering in the show's title is reminiscent of "The Godfather."

Like other reality shows, "The Family" is designed to eliminate one contestant each week following a series of competitions.

The loser is selected by a panel known as the Board of Trustees, whose identity is unknown to the participants, but revealed to the audience as the members of the estate's staff - including the chef, a prissy social secretary, a tough-as-nails housekeeper and a stone-faced butler.

In tonight's premiere, the so-called competitions are the biggest weaknesses. As in past reality shows - particularly "The Mole" on ABC - I found tonight's face-offs to be utterly unfathomable. I understood neither how they worked nor why they came out the way they did.

Among the show's strengths are the mildly amusing scenes in which the staff discusses the family's lack of experience in upper-crust ettiquette.

The whole thing sounds more than a little like CBS's plan to produce a reality-TV version of "The Beverly Hillbillies," a concept that's been roundly booed by rural Americans.

After watching "The Family," some Italian-Americans might want to mount a protest of their own, or head for the hills.