I initially heard of Jersey Shore from my favorite sports/pop culture columnist Bill Simmons (The Sports Guy), who attached to the show right off the bat, he was super excited about it. And then there was the hilarious Cracked article by Daniel O’Brien. Both of them have continued to follow it. So I had to check it out (or else I would not understand like half of The Sports Guy’s references at the very least—MTV should really be paying him or something for all the advertising he does for them). Of course it lived up to my expectations in being hilarious to watch/make fun of/come up with jokes about. The slang they continually come up with is fantastic for a start. That got me to keep watching and paying attention. It’s why I’m sure most people started watching and still why I recommend it, or at least the attitude I recommend starting with, because it won’t let you down (whereas expecting it to go somewhere for you/be the amazing show that it is to me is probably hit or miss, just know that it’s possible).
So what happens, as Simmons or his guest Dave Jacoby, who he calls his Reality TV Czar, (I forget who said it) put it in one podcast, is that you start out watching thinking they are going to be clowns, that you are just going to laugh at them, but then you don’t even notice that after the first season, if Mike “The Situation” said he needed a place to stay for the weekend cause he was dropping by your town, you would totally offer your couch (or even give him the bed). They became people who could be your friends, or at least real people, to you. But how does this happen?
The way I came to view it is that the cast operates and has chosen to live in basically a society or world that has totally different social norms to what most of us are used to and some different (and some similar values). So judging them through the lens of customs I follow is rather pointless. Pauly D may have suitcases of hair gel and a tanning bed in his house, but do any of those really say anything about him as a person? In the world he chooses to operate in, they are valued or at least might convey status or provide favorable social opportunities or enhance the prospects of social opportunities in that society. Sure they seem frivolous but I consider much of what I and many other people do frivolous as well. What is really different in that than having progaming swag/autographs, sports jerseys or collecting achievements in games, or having stylish clothes, high heels, or anything. There is no substantive/functional content in any of it other than feeling better about yourself or having other people feel better (or sometimes worse) about you. It all just depends on what world you want to be accepted in. So watching this totally alien world is actually fascinating (and not necessarily in a “it’s a horrific spectacle” way).
What makes me believe this particular show and world have struck gold? Well the most basic thing is that the people here for the most part just love fun. How can you not have a fun show with such a fun-loving crowd. It’s also very accessible, yet there’s so much there to think about, about each of their individual personalities, about what their society is about, about how it interacts with “real life”, about their relationships with each other, and especially how stuff like that is both governed by the unfamiliar social norms of their world, and the familiar norms of human interaction we generally think of. Situation, for example, displays some distinctly aggressive style for picking up girls at clubs, both in the sense of being forward, but also in a lack of regard for the boundaries other men would expect him to respect. He introduces us to “The Robbery” and will explain himself by saying that’s just how it goes at the Shore. It’s fascinating to see in what ways their behavior reflects that familiar norms/unfamiliar norms dynamic, and then to think about what it says of whatever our normal “non-Shore” construct for a situation is.
Similar things could be said of any documentary about another culture, but beyond the humorous twist on that style of documentary created by the play between our preconceptions of the Shore type people and them being Americans or basically belonging to our western society and their behavior seeming so odd that we have to study them like a totally foreign culture, there is even another level. They are not, in general, following traditions set by elders or anyone else. I forget where I heard this, but I heard that the main directive given to the cast recruiters initially was to find people who were the most unapologetically themselves in that scene. They basically paved their own way, created their own Jersey Shore house culture from the start. And now they are without a doubt the most famous and influential of the self-proclaimed Guidos and Guidettes ever, so it’s all following their lead. With not very many limits placed on them, we are just sitting back, seeing what gets built, how the norms of their own creation operate, and possibly shift and grow and interact occasionally with reality.
The capacity for this sort of growth is really what has elevated this show above almost all of its reality peers though. There is really a sense with Jersey Shore that no one involved—the creators, MTV, the cast, etc.—none of them had any idea where the idea was going when it first started. It was like, “well we have this outrageous idea for a show with these outrageous people, lets put it together and see what happens.” This gives it a purer, more unstructured feel that has really stuck with it. There’s not a plethora of rules governing the characters’ interactions, there isn’t drama manufactured by having them compete with one another, there’s no elimination other than someone choosing to leave the show, it doesn’t feel like there’s some overriding structure that gives a feeling of being controlled. Here’s the playground, go play, that’s what it feels like the directions given were (of course no one really knows the extent of directorial manipulation). This has let the charisma and watchability of the cast be the driving force, rather than other gimmicks. When the show initially hit the public eye, there was a sizable outpouring of disbelief, derision and outrage, yet the unflappable good humor and even playful self-mocking of the cast really endeared them to us and allowed the show to take off. And following them has been a great reward thus far.
This is another factor that separates it from most reality show, the fact that the show has really stuck with this cast that built what the show is, their own world and allowed them to grow. We get to see them live in the world they created. After season one, Simmons and Jacoby speculated on whether that season was a one hit wonder type of deal that galvanized us for a bit but could never be recreated. The show answered them by demonstrating that it wasn’t just a phenomenon, but that following these people was continually rewarding, even after the novelty and propulsion given to it by media controversy/mass exposure were over. You got their most obvious and most made-for-display personality aspects in season one, but by continuing, you get a window into the driving forces underneath, which is something that hasn’t been done much by reality shows. Sammi, for example, is a totally different person to me now than at the end of season one (when I saw no value in her really, I honestly thought she was scum). But she’s a complex person, so issues and things that were going on in season one took until just now in season three to come to some sort of head and now possibly spur growth.
Snooki makes a bad first impression to both viewers and her housemates, but is now among the most loved. She seems genuinely cool to me. Vinny gets a chance to show himself as he grows into the show (he is not very prominent in season one). I’m not sure if I like him, but that might be insecurity about him having a bigger penis than me (apparently it’s huge, lol). Pauly D’s steady coolness takes a while to really impress you because the really impressive thing is how consistent it is, he’s literally cool in every situation (maybe that one punch early in s1 excluded). And he also delivers entertainment almost constantly. We see the long term toll of Angelina’s constant posturing and dramatics, and how hers differs from Situation’s based on what’s behind it. Mike is really one of the most intriguing and fun people to follow. His personality is to big to be contained. Jenni/JWOWW’s is also big (along with some other things ^^) and fantastic and displays many sides and even something like sophistication at times while being the most wholly indecorous at others or at the same time. She’s actually the most real to me, like she’s often a great friend but she has a lot to learn too. In truth I would be incredibly attracted to her if not for the awful fake boobs. And Ron, we’ve watched him transform into basically a different person because of a relationship, and wonder along with him who he really is, as it’s something that obviously perturbs him to a growing extent as it goes on.
Honestly they feel like my friends now, and the amazing part is that they aren’t written constructs like in a drama, made for that purpose. I’m concerned about the effect that the Ron and Sam saga has had on both of them. I’m inspired by how they’ve all made this family construction work and come together so genuinely at times despite drama at every turn. I want Sam to stop sabotaging herself, I want Snooki to find something or someone lasting and satisfying, I want Jenni to be part of my life. And I’m going to keep trying to get to know them more, keep letting their depths unfold until they stop letting me in. All of this from people I took to be clowns. That’s the magic of Jersey Shore.
It's probably a doomed relationship because eventually the cast's fame is going to add too many obstacles, but it's amazing right now.
Comments: thoughtless hating not appreciated, if you don't have a new criticism that's interesting/uncommon or a good response to something I brought up, don't bother.
Any other discussion of the show is cool though. Or Simmons/Jacoby reality TV podcasts (bottom of this page) which are like my new favorite thing next to State of the Game.