Tonight, on the eve of the end of the world, MTV will finally close up the Jersey Shore house, draping soiled sheets over the furniture, boarding up the windows that aren't already broken. Yes, Jersey Shore's last episode has arrived, bringing to a close a phenomenon — and an American era of sorts — that was both sordid and silly, full of the kind of cheap voyeurism whose subjects quickly became self-aware. It's hard to say we'll miss Jersey Shore, but it may still be worth remembering.
Perhaps the most bizarre thing about the show is that it's only three years old. Yes, though it feels like Snooki jokes have been around forever, that we haven't been able to use the word "situation" seriously in about a decade, the series only premiered in December 2009. The world then wasn't actually all that different from the way it is now. Obama was president, Two and a Half Men bothered a nation, doomsday cults still prayed and planned. So it's a testament to the sheer, gunky force of this reality touchstone that it was able to make such an impression in such a short time. Is there a more famous reality show these days than Jersey Shore? I mean, it's certainly not talked about as much as it once was, but everyone knows what Jersey Shore is, probably everyone with a television under the age of sixty has made at least one weary little joke about the show. In just over three years, the show seared itself into the national consciousness — became an entire genre containing only itself — in a way we hadn't seen since The Real World.
Sure, American Idol is bigger, but in some ways it's too big. It tries to encompass too much and thus spreads itself thin. And Survivor, save for all the similar competition shows it has spawned and its first-widely-popular-American-reality-show status, is a far less discussed property, probably because it's actually a pretty good show. No, I think Jersey Shore stands shoulder-to-shoulder with some of the big reality totem poles; it's the kind of show that will likely fade from daily conversation, and probably already has for most folks, but will always be mentioned in a description of this time and place in television, and possibly even in broader contexts than that. Something about it resonated: it was a grotesque oddity, but never so off-putting that people didn't engage with its characters or come to care for them in some small way.
Those characters are most of Jersey Shore's magic, if you can call it that. Those of us who remain fans of the classic True Life episode "I Have a Summer Share," which followed a clueless mook around Seaside as he tried to find love in the summer of '03, were maybe disappointed that MTV didn't follow that episode's model. Meaning, when the network first announced Jersey Shore, we were hoping for a show about an already established group of friends, to be plopped down into their preexisting dynamic and shown some funny/terrible things. I'm still of the mind that that would have been better, as people might have been less presentational and slightly more themselves in a more familiar environment. (As evidenced by the long lost footage of MTV's abandoned Staten Island show Bridge & Tunnel, which was developed and shot just before Jersey Shore.) But MTV apparently knew better, deciding to go with a Real World approach: disparate strangers convene in a soundstage of a house, navigate uncomfortable social dynamics, work a job together, and drink drink drink. Of course, it worked almost too well.
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I suspect the reason this approach enthralled so many people was that, unlike The Real World, the goal here was to find as many similar and like-minded people as possible. They wanted "guidos" and "guidettes," all of whom dressed the same and talked the same and had the same idea of how to party. Sure, the producers may have tweaked and amped here and there, but still the most initially striking thing about this show was the way it presented us with a subculture that was already so fully formed, so fleshed out with lingo and fashion and music, but that most people in America had probably never witnessed or experienced. It was stunt anthropology and it worked better than MTV could ever have hoped for. Crucially, they got the right kids, too.
We had a decent, smart guy in Vinny from Staten Island; a New Paltz grad who planned to head to law school, Vinny was our levelheaded Virgil through this spray-tan inferno. (Initially, at least.) In Ronnie we had a sensitive hulk, a Puerto Rican/Italian mix from the Bronx whose overstuffed muscles were the object of lust for many a Shore girl. But of course his heart belonged only to one, Sammi "Sweetheart," a pretty and perky nice girl with the hidden but easily revealed temper that makes for good reality TV. (Of a certain kind, anyway.) There was the cute trickster Pauly D, whose Providence provenance made him a bit of a tri-state poseur, but who made up for it with humor and sick DJ skillz. He had good, sly chemistry with the secretly intelligent wild girl Jenni "JWoww," a girl with no Italian blood in her but a true dedication to the cause nonetheless. And then, of course, we had the true breakouts: Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino, a total dweeb who tried desperately to pass himself off as cool (and as younger than he clearly was), relying solely on his rippling physique to gain him entree into what he saw as the Shore's inner circles. He was a fascinating study in male desperation, a nice guy at heart who primps and preens and coins partyboy phrases in a vain attempt to become a player. (He later developed a drinking problem, darkening his goofy persona considerably.) Lastly, there was Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, a tiny dynamo of a thing adopted from outer space by way of Chile. Snooki made a drunken mess of herself early on, but she was also game and endearing; a bit bratty but rarely unfriendly, Snooki was the strange orange heart of the show when it began, and she became its biggest star.
There was also Angelina, a grumpy sourpuss who stormed out during the first season because she didn't want to work the required T-shirt shoppe job and then couldn't make it through the second season when MTV kindly invited her back. And there was Deena, Angelina's replacement who played a role here and there, but never really connected. It was mostly about the originals. About Sorrentino's dumb made-up terms — "grenade" (an ugly girl your wingman distracts so you can score with her friend), "GTL" (gym, tan, laundry — the important prep routine of any good guido). About Sammie and Ronnie's drunken (ex-)lovers quarrels. About Snooki's strange blundering — especially when she was famously punched in the first season by a man in a bar, a clip that MTV aired in promos but, following protest, blacked out of the actual episode. These people became overnight phenomena, borne up by their easy if volatile chemistry, self-propelled by being so eager and expressive about explaining a lifestyle that always seemed a little made-up. We allowed them their world of Bamboo nightclubbing and hot tub filthing-up as long as they'd bring us along, show us around the place, try to bring some clarity to this subset of people that exist only in this one relatively small geographical area. Sure, we were "shocked" by the crassness of it, by the booze and the brawling, but there was something hospitable about it, too. Though we reality TV watchers may seem overeager to trash other people's lifestyles through snide faux-fandom — see Honey Boo Boo, see Dance Moms, see Real Housewives — there's always a grain of affection in there. Even for these Seaside Heights horrors, aggressive and unthoughtful and loud in their assumed dominance of their social world as they could be.
Of course, MTV quickly mucked up the formula in an effort to capitalize on the show's sudden success. Being that the Jersey Shore is only a seasonal partying destination, they rushed into a second season by sending the kids to Miami. It proved mostly disastrous; in the wrong context they seem too much like jokes, even though they are of course jokes (who know it) to begin with. Plus, they were being touched by the fame demon, and when that happens on any reality show of this kind things get ugly and boring pretty quickly. They were sent back to Seaside for season three, then to Florence for number four. That season had its curiously charming fish-out-of-water moments, but mostly these were boorish Americans publicly reviled in Italy — their cleaving to a supposed Italian-American identity was made even more of an offense, MTV nyah-nyah-ing its detractors by sending the cast right into the lion's den. Everything since has been back in New Jersey, but the show has irrevocably changed. They're all wealthy and famous now, some have had their own shows, and Snooki has a child. She's been pregnant on this final season, living in a house right next door to the rest of them, and it's added a strange depth of sudden maturity to a show that has always been, down to its central thesis, about anything but. I'm not sure it works as classic Jersey Shore entertainment, but it's an oddly touching way to end a rarely touching show. Sent off into adulthood, goodbye summer dream.
Jersey Shore has made a lot of people rich. It's spawned imitators as diverse as Geordie Shore in the UK and the upcoming Appalachian version, Buck Wild, on MTV. (Though, that uses a preexisting group of friends, as we once hoped JS would do.) The show has come and will soon be gone, but remnants of it will still linger. Many in the cast will have their own shows in the coming year — Vinny hosting a talk show out of his Staten Island house, spinoff Snooki & JWoww is returning for a second season, as is The Pauly D Project — and there are likely inevitable reunions and other stunts down the line. So we are not done with the bigger world of Jersey Shore, but the original artifact will, after tonight, be just that. As if nature was cruelly imitating not-quite-art, Hurricane Sandy came along shortly after the final season's premiere and washed away much of the Shore, devastating in a serious way a region that had, over the past three years especially, become something silly. To suggest that the two things are in any way linked would be dumb at best and offensive at worst, but it is strange to think that if MTV ever wanted to go back, right back to where it all started, they couldn't. That old place is gone now. A storm blew in and changed everything. And then Sandy came and finished the job.