Three summer reality TV shows use Chicago settings, but only one satisfies

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'Mob Wives Chicago'

The cast of "Mob Wives Chicago." (June 27, 2012)

Some of the women are strong characters, tough-talking, brassy and un-self-conscious. Nora Schweihs, the daughter of the late alleged mob enforcer Frank Schweihs, delivers one of the funniest lines heard on television this year.

After the big bar fight, she said she was feeling “Humiliation! With capital letters all the way through how it's spelt!”

You could see her wanting to express the big emotion, but at the same time realizing that she wasn't going to be able to spell the word.

Such moments do, in fact, feel real. But the reasons the women give for doing what they do are often incomprehensible: The fight happened because one character kept bringing up a conflict between two others that had been settled.

And the situations they are in are so contrived that the whole enterprise seems as unnatural as a surgically enhanced chest. (No idea why that comparison came to mind.)

The “mob,” the ostensible reason for their relationship, is merely a bit player, mentioned here and there as a “lifestyle” the women have been born into but seemingly having little influence in their lives at the moment.

“Secret Millionaire,” meanwhile, starts with a gigantic contrivance. A rich person is stripped of his or her identity and put into an impoverished situation to try to find heroes. Those people or organizations will then receive some kind of largesse, when the person, who has been pretending to be part of a documentary, reveals his wealth.

The reveal itself isn't all that satisfying. “I am fortunate enough to be a millionaire” recalls “Austin Powers” and Dr. Evil's failure to realize that $1 million isn't what it used to be.

But the quest for good deeds, and the way it affects the wealthy donors, is genuinely engaging stuff. “My Chicago got bigger,” says Kaplan, a 52-year-old from Buffalo Grove who made his money through marketing companies and writing business books. “I now mean the North Side all the way down to 120th Street.”

This is a reality show in the best sense. It shows a different reality than the one people think they know. And it changes the reality for some of its participants. When Kaplan calls his ability to help out “one of the best moments of my life,” the sincerity is palpable.

The same emotional connection is present when he works on a memorial for scores of people who died before reaching adulthood.

“Why are we not outraged that this is happening?” Kaplan asks of the broader society. One possible answer lies in our willingness to be distracted by stage-managed bickering among groups of people we don't personally know.

Twitter @StevenKJohnson

‘Secret Millionaire'

7 p.m. Sundays, ABC. Kaplan is hosting a viewing party Sunday at Moe's Cantina, 155 W. Kinzie St., with all proceeds going to the organizations he helps in the show.

'Chicagolicious': 8 p.m. Mondays, Style Network.

'Mob Wives Chicago': 7 p.m. Sundays, VH1.

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