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Jersey Shore: Thoughts on the great social experiment of our time

Posted by Alex Pearlman  May 18, 2012 11:33 AM

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thesituation.jpgBy Ryan Hadfield

Back in December of 2009, Fridays were even more engaging around the water cooler, as all colloquial conversation centered on what transpired at Karma night club the night before, if the “D.T.F.” girl was a grenade, and why The Situation should open a restaurant (or at least be a judge on Top Chef). Reality television had a new king, Jersey Shore. And, little did we know, it was here to stay. I’d like to claim I was a fan of Jersey Shore from the start, like it is an obscure indie band that makes it big, but everything about it is so aggressively supercilious that doing so actually subtracts from one’s pop culture currency.

Looking back, in the early seasons, the Jersey Shore’s biggest feat was the producers’ ability to intertwine actual events with the innate nothingness that consumes most other reality TV shows. The audiences’ investment in Jersey Shore was built on the foundation of larger moments -- like a bro punching Snooki in the face; Ronnie emphatically clamoring, “One shot, kid! One shot!” after beheading another bro with his fist; Ronnie going to prison for said-decapitation a half hour later; and everything about The Situation (his misplaced confidence, everlasting quest for sex, and lovable yet antagonistic demeanor).

It was these actual events that led to an interest in the smaller happenings in the Shore house – like observing Pauly D’s stalker; fist pumping and “beating the beat up;” Snooki’s fascination with meeting a juicehead and her love of pickles; the surprisingly clever jargon that became ingratiated in everyday culture (e.g. G.T.L., D.T.F., grenades); JWoww’s outfits; Vinny’s pink eye; and everything about Angelina’s scattered run in Season 1 and Season 2. In short, the “Did you see that!?” clips were appointment television and paved the way, making visits to the barber shop and Sunday dinner watchable.

Of course, it helped that the roommates did everything right in the beginning stages of their collective fame. In between seasons, the cast flaunted their brewing star-power at the 2010 MTV Video Music Awards, and oddly owned the room, despite being among artists with, you know, real talent. Moreover, the cast was self-aware of their fortuitous place in celebrity life, and played to the lunacy of their nascent fame while appearing in a hilarious Funny Or Die video. That’s not to say each didn’t try to milk the circumstance and market their brand. Heck, The Situation competed on Dancing With the Stars, and the entire cast made a cameo in the music video for “I Like It” which (I argue) is the biggest factor in Enrique Iglesias’ current career resurgence.

But, as with everything, once accustomed to the outrageousness, the vapid nature of the house was exposed. The nights out at the club became harder to differentiate from one another, like one big frat party, making every episode seem recycled. The sole aspect holding the show together was Vinny and Pauly D’s budding bromance. Occasionally, the duo was able to concoct catchphrases like “Cabs are here!” But generally speaking, nothing happened. The aforementioned smaller plots were still existent, but again, viewers lose interest in plumbing issues and stripper poles in the living room when Ron Ron Juice fails to provoke meaningful debauchery. Not to mention, for whatever reason, producers were steadfast in subjecting viewers to the cast mailing in a shift at the same t-shirt shop they worked while they were unassuming nobodies, even though each roommate was a business mogul by Season 3.

Don’t get me wrong, the cast didn’t help the inevitable precipice either. For instance, was it me, or were there month-long stretches where Sammi didn’t leave her bed? Perhaps even worse was Ronnie’s inclination to remove Sammi’s coveted mattress from the premises. In fact, a weird subplot during Season 3 was whether Ronnie would commit spousal abuse on the show, and if MTV would air one of its patented Public Service Announcements after the episode. (Admit it – this crossed your mind from anywhere between four and 37 times). Meanwhile, The Situation transformed from an affable creeper you strangely rooted for, to simply a creeper who became increasingly difficult to watch week to week.

As for the rest of the cast, JWoww gradually turned motherly (yet inexplicably still dressed like a dominatrix), Deanna couldn’t decide on her sexuality (I’ll concede this was somewhat interesting, but Deanna’s insertion into Jersey Shore always felt off, like Tiffani-Amber Thiessen replacing Shannen Doherty on Beverly Hills, 90210), Vinny dealt with anxiety issues, and Pauly D was left negotiating details of his spin-off show.

Overnight, the cast started making curious decisions off-screen as well. Snooki got pregnant (congrats, Snooks. But this ruined any potential for Snooki-related binge drinking), Vinny wrote a self-help book, Ronnie signed on as a spokesperson for a weight loss supplement (leading to comically under-produced commercials), and The Situation bombed during the Roast of Donald Trump and entered rehab for substance abuse shortly after.

None of this detracted from viewership; the Jersey Shore attracted nearly nine million viewers – the most ever for a MTV show – during a Season 3 and the show still rates well. That’s why the gang (sans Snooki) is being brought back for a sixth season. But, although the run will continue, the relevancy has waned.

So, the question now becomes: What did the Jersey Shore mean?

In our on-demand culture, contemporary television mirrors the Internet more and more, and this allows for shows like Jersey Shore and Keeping Up With The Kardashians to thrive. Niche television – sports, politics, drama, comedy – is dissected by its critics and fans, forcing accountability. This, obviously, improves the quality of programming.

On the contrary, no one challenges reality television, because no one cares enough and it’s widely considered mindless entertainment. This, obviously, exacerbates the quality of reality television programming. The genre is given a free pass much like a toddler who doesn’t know any better, but at the same time, it’s perplexing scripted shows like HBO’s Girls, are vehemently criticized. There is a considerable double-standard here.

In five to seven years, when the E! True Hollywood Story of Jersey Shore premieres, analysts will make light of its rise. However, the real mockery is that in modern entertainment, ambition breeds scrutiny, while shallowness enables complacency.

What do you think about the evolution of Jersey Shore?

About Ryan -- Ryan Hadfield is a writer for, predominantly covering the Boston Celtics and hosting a media podcast. He is currently working on his first book,The 25th Year: 12 Months of Suspect Choices and Strange Events. Follow him on Twitter@R_Hadfield.

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