Before we begin, fellow viewers, I have one question: Who is the everyman on Jersey Shore? Who is the control group in this demented science experiment? Who is the person to whom you would happily say “Hello, my friend!” if you ran into them at the local supermarket/multiplex/church/bar? In this show’s curious subculture of demonic partygoers and decadent thrill-seekers and Xenadrine-addled ape-men, who is, well, the normal one? The obvious answer is Vinny. He is not running a relentless stealth PR campaign for his own cult of personality, like Sitch. He was not stolen from his jungle home and raised in captivity, like Ronnie. He is not stuck in the Mirror Stage of human development, like Sammi. He is not a tormented crusader for justice, like J-Woww. He is not a sociopathic demi-god from Neptune, like Pauly. He is not Snooki, like Deena.
Vinny honors his family. Vinny tries to be a good friend. Vinny’s skin is not the color of a rotting Jack O’Lantern. He is self-aware, and witty, and thoughtful. (All of those terms are relative, but you get the idea.) Vinny makes mistakes, but he appears to regret those mistakes. We can tell ourselves that, if we were trapped in a house with steroidal rock ’em sock ’em robots for two months in a row, we would act a lot like Vin-Vin: bemused, exasperated, a little bit frightened.
But maybe that’s an optimistic perspective. We should remember that humans are a petty, selfish, narcissistic, semi-suicidal species. We invented the atomic bomb, breast implants, and the Disney cruise. We agonize over pointlessly shallow things. “Do I look good?” “Do people like me?” “How come everyone I know hasn’t realized that I am the most interesting person they know?” From this perspective, the everyman should be a fundamentally tragic figure: A self-mythologizing, self-loathing Willy Loman type, who brings only sadness and terror into the lives of the people who love them. The everyman is the cause of their own problems, the villain in their own story. With that in mind, it’s obvious who the everyman is in the Shore house. To misquote Oliver Stone’s Nixon: When we look at Vinny, we see who we want to be. When we look at The Situation, we see who we are.
Of course, the truth is that there isn’t really an everyman on Jersey Shore. This is because the American Everyman is dead. He died over a decade ago, in the summer of 2000. On May 31 of that year, Survivor debuted. Six weeks later, on July 14, the first X-Men movie hit theaters. Those two apparently unrelated events were, in hindsight, a pair of slow-detonating proximity mines whose dual explosions would fundamentally alter American pop culture. Survivor inaugurated the decade of reality television, a genre built on the dual foundation of Ridiculous People (The Hills, America’s Next Top Model, America’s Got Talent, The Real Housewives of Everywhere, anything with Celebrity in the title) and Average People Forced to Do Ridiculous Things (Survivor, Amazing Race, Fear Factor, Wife Swap, Undercover Boss.) Even shows about “real people” doing “real jobs” elevate their material into the stratosphere — the typical A&E reality show is shot like a Michael Bay movie, except the characters aren’t models and the dialogue is better written.
At the same time, the Era of the Superhero Movie slowly pushed most average human beings away from the multiplex. Tom Shone’s essential book Blockbuster brilliantly notes how America’s movie heroes used to be average joes — the freaked-out sheriff in Jaws, the farm boy in Star Wars, the high school kid in Back to the Future. Now, our heroes have all become godlike beings. Consider the billionaire protagonists of Batman Begins and Iron Man, the dashing adventurers of Pirates of the Caribbean, the world-saving messiahs of The Matrix and Avatar. Yeesh, Thor is literally a freaking god.
This wasn’t Hollywood’s fault. We all want to be athletic billionaires who save people because we love justice. We all want to go away to a desert island and win a million dollars. We all want to be gods, and we all secretly believe that we can become rich and famous just by being ourselves. (This is why American Idol is still the most primal reality show on television — it taps into our secret belief that we are superstars, just waiting to be discovered.) Nobody wants to be normal anymore. Which is why the real hero of Jersey Shore is Boss Danny, the owner of the Shore Store and the last man left on earth who can treat the Jersey Shore cast like the horrible overgrown fifth graders that they are.
NEXT: Death of a T-Shirt Salesman