Here’s what I liked most about Jersey Shore, a program I had never watched until this evening: the show frequently put the names of the characters up on screen, so I had no trouble telling who was who. Furthermore, the characters talked so incessantly about themselves and about their situation (no pun intended) that it was pretty easy to keep up with whatever had been going on. If I ever felt lost or confused, well, right away, there would be the text, bringing me right back up to speed. Sure, you might argue, this is just something the series shares in common with virtually every other series in its genre. But sometimes you have to start with the small things and work your way up.
I actually volunteered for this assignment, too! I don’t think it’s surprising to say that Jersey Shore is enormously popular, but unlike the shows we cover for Box Populi, the Dancing With The Starses and NCISes of the world, Jersey Shore is massively popular with people in my same, basic, 18-34-year-old demographic. Indeed, this show is hugely popular with that most valuable demographic, with both men and women in it, with a huge swath of that particular viewing audience. There are plenty of other shows in this basic genre (Matt Zoller Seitz calls them “hothouse” reality shows in this terrific piece about the suicide of a man featured in Real Housewives Of Beverly Hills.) But not a one can come close to this particular one.
Why is that? I’m sure there are plenty of hypotheses—young adults see their lives reflected on screen (shudder); young adults appreciate the unintentional comedy of the series; young adults just love the Sammi/Ronnie drama; MTV carries more cultural cachet with that demographic than other networks; etc.—but no single one is going to be right. For what it is, Jersey Shore is a slickly put together piece of television, one that follows the rules and conventions of its genre to a T but does so with such a straightforward appeal that it’s hard to look away. I wasn’t invested in the characters or any of the relationships, but the show very quickly caught me up on who was who and who’d been making out with whom, and that’s not something that’s easy to do in a format like this. And even if this particular episode didn’t bother doing much of anything with the “Snooki gets the gang in a van to visit the ancestral homeland” arc of the season, it’s still nice to see MTV’s cameras capturing Italian side-streets instead of, well, New Jersey.
But at the same time, it was a terrible idea for me to volunteer for this assignment. I just can’t figure out why people seem to like this particular kind of show. Indeed, if there’s a kind of show I find murderously difficult to watch, it’s this sort of slick entertainment, where real people are encouraged to go on TV and behave as much as possible like asses to entertain the audience, which gets to feel better than a bunch of people who are comfortingly edited to make sure the viewer at home never feels insecure in his or her own superiority. Something about it just rubs me the wrong way, and I swear to God it’s not the usual “Reality TV is baaaaad” bullshit you usually hear. There’s plenty of good reality TV, and the genre can be as terrific as anything else on TV with the right producers and casting agents. But the reality show as faux-anthropological study, the reality show as way to watch spoiled famous people snipe endlessly at each other? I have pretty much the same reaction to that that Zack Handlen described being his reaction to cringe comedy: I find it so uncomfortable to watch that I eventually just have to bail.
And to its credit (I guess?), Jersey Shore didn’t once tip off those uncomfortable sensors during this hour. I’m not entirely sure where the latest reunion of Sammi and Ronnie fits into what seems to be a seasons-old storyline, but I would have known it was a terminally boring storyline without even having read Genevieve and Marah’s reviews over the past two years proclaiming it as such. Because I didn’t see the incident in question, I’m not sure who’s in the right in the big, climactic fight between Snooki and The Situation about the two of them having apparently hooked up at one point, which will ruin Snook’s relationship with a guy whose name I’m not even going to attempt to spell. And the business that provides the episode’s title—Situation is a dick to a couple of hot twins, and they end up glomming on to the cast members, one eventually hooking up with Deena before ending the night with Vinny—is strung through the episode haphazardly like occasional road signs designed to break up the relationship inertia. (I was sick of Ronnie and Sammi by the end of their conversation about their relationship. I can’t imagine what that’s like for those of you who faithfully view this show.) But that whole business is still mildly amusing, especially if you can turn off the part of your brain that says, “Hey, these are real people I’m laughing at, not television characters!” (I found the long montage of guys hanging up on the twins kind of sad, myself, but it was pretty skillfully done for what it was, again.)
So the show’s not all bad, but it’s also sort of bland. These sorts of programs usually rely on high drama and big, hair-pulling catfights to get through the week. I didn’t see much of that in Jersey Shore, and that left me wondering what the hell this show’s even supposed to be. The one big fight—the blowout between Situation and Snooki—has pretty much nothing to do with anything else in the episode, seems to have been brewing for a while, and still seems completely calculated by the producers and placed within the episode for maximum dramatic impact. It’s also surprisingly boring by the standards of this genre. The two start yelling. Sad music plays. A bunch of people hooking up (and/or comforting each other) is treated like the climactic montage on a show like Grey’s Anatomy.
But what’s the reason for it, the greater purpose? I’m not even asking why the show is popular (I’ll never understand that); I’m asking why someone thought, “Hey, let’s make a reality show out of this” and MTV thought, “Hey, let’s buy that.” Other shows in this genre have clearly definable cores. The Real World (at least when it didn’t suck) was an honest attempt to document what it was like to be part of a generation that wasn’t easily documentable. Real Housewives—much as I despise most of those series—is decidedly a mix of escapism with class envy, an attempt to make the rich both more vaunted and more easily mockable. Has there ever been that idea for Jersey Shore? Did it start out with a mission statement similar to The Real World and then mutate out of control because it was unable to change the cast with each season? I somehow doubt that’s the case.
I’ve been reading Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics recently, and I’m struck by his notion that the simpler a drawing of a person, the easier it is to project yourself into the role of that person. Cartoonish figures succeed so readily as worldwide icons of pop culture because it’s so easy to find oneself within the broadly drawn confines of Mickey Mouse or Charlie Brown or Bart Simpson. And maybe that’s some of what Jersey Shore is meant to be. Maybe at one time, it was possible to see the sorts of struggles—for love and acceptance and a really great night out at the clubs—that young people across the country face in these blandly attractive, strange people. They were vastly different from us, and they came out of a very specific sub-culture, but at the same time, they faced similar challenges.
Maybe at one time, the very alienness of the show gave it a kind of universality. But now that everybody involved in it has self-awareness of their character within the program and now that everybody’s famous, there’s no real way to approach that level of identification. These are people who, for all intents and purposes, now have to live in a bubble. And there’s no way into that bubble, even as the show keeps trying to insist they’re relatable. It’s that inescapable divide, more than anything, that makes the show feel so false. It’s the uncanny valley version of what it’s like to be a young person in the United States right now, but it’s been generated in such a way as to invite us to continue to laugh at these folks and their goofy failures. It goes down easily, but you understand less and less why you keep ordering the same thing.
Of course, I laughed a hell of a lot at Situation facing down that pigeon. So maybe I just watched a bad episode.