By Darren Franich
Updated October 04, 2012 at 04:00 PM EDT
  • TV Show
  • MTV

MTV has never been shy about overextending a successful franchise into oblivion. So it was more than a little bit surprising when the network announced that the new season of Jersey Shore would be last. True, the show has taken a ratings tumble ever since season 4’s trip to Florence, a frustrated attempt at high-camp that wound up feeling like Last Year at Marienbad performed by gorilla ballerinas. True, the show’s whole pop-culture moment is at least one year gone. But this is MTV we’re talking about. MTV, which implemented the Kristin Cavallari option to keep The Hills alive while simultaneously convincing the world that a show about Whitney Port made any sense whatsoever. MTV, which gave pretty much every Jackass cast member their own vanity spin-off, including Wildboyz, which was actually pretty fun, and Viva La Bam, which might actually be the worst television show of all time. MTV, which couldn’t give a reality show to just one Simpson sister. MTV, which still airs The Challenge.

So it seemed out of character for the network to announce that Jersey Shore was finished. And because that decision was made retroactively, after they were done filming the sixth season, you had to ask yourself a simple question: Just how bad had the new season turned out? The prospects sounded apocalyptic. The show’s twin mascots were returning with radically new living circumstances. Snooki was pregnant and engaged; The Situation was fresh out of rehab. So putting them in a house that ran on hedonism gave the whole enterprise a loaded-gun vibe.

Throw in Vinny’s season 5 anxiety meltdown, the ongoing Ronnie/Sammi death spiral, and the simple fact that some cast members look less human every year. At worst, we seemed to be approaching one of those terrifying moments — like the Real Housewives suicide or the moment when Heidi Montag’s face went full cyborg — when reality TV would get a little too real. At best, season 6 was probably going to be really boring. (ASIDE: It’s true that MTV had already implemented the Spin-Off Protocol with The Pauly D Project and Snooki & J-Woww, but neither show lit up the ratings. Anyhow, even if Jersey Shore lost half its main cast, it wouldn’t be beyond MTV to produce a season with an entirely new cast, with Deena or Vinny in the Eugene Levy franchise-mascot role. END OF ASIDE.)

But tonight’s two-hour premiere is not what you were expecting at all. The episode opens with The Situation having a meal with his family. He doesn’t mince words. He’s been to rehab: “I’m the cleanest and healthiest I’ve ever been since maybe I was 21 or so.” The Situation talks about his sobriety constantly in the premiere; at one point, as he drives over the bridge to Seaside Heights, he says, “I probably haven’t come over this bridge sober since the first summer.” You could point out that The Situation’s stint in rehab is being played up as one of this season’s “storylines.”

But The Situation’s doesn’t come off like he’s paying lip service to change. Far from it. The change in his whole bearing is eerily concrete and physical. He used to have a wired presence in confessionals, talking quickly and jolting his body with every syllable. Now, his confessionals are quiet and subdued. He thinks over every word. Since last year, his arm muscles have swollen to a grotesque degree, and his shoulders remain remarkably ramrod-straight. Remember during Charlie Sheen’s media blitzkrieg, when networks would occasionally play video of a sober, somber late ’90s Sheen to offer some context for the wiry, caffeinated-if-not-worse 2011 model? The newly-clean Situation feels like a completely different person. He feels like someone who doesn’t really belong on Jersey Shore.

That would be a problem, but nobody really belongs on this show anymore. Snooki wisely opts to move out of the house: Because, you know, she’s having a freaking baby. Vinny hasn’t really seemed at ease in the Jersey Shore house since season 3, and he announces that he’s going to attempt a summer of celibacy. Deena and J-Woww are both in relationships. Ronnie and Sammi are back in a relationship, and they seem curiously fine together except when either of them has a single drop of alcohol. Everyone is growing up, really, so their continued presence in a house devoted to partying is nonsensical. (The only Shore cast member who hasn’t really evolved is Pauly D, who is either the nicest guy in the world or a gleefully amoral sociopath.)

Of course, we all know why they’re in the party house: MTV is paying them to be there. But what makes this final season premiere so interesting is that nobody really seems interested in… well, being interesting. Again, regard The Situation. For the last few seasons, Sitch has been the proud villain of the house, stirring up drama wherever possible. On tonight’s premiere, he cooks everyone dinner and goes around the room apologizing to everyone — essentially undertaking Step 9 in front of a mass audience. “I feel like I let almost everybody down,” he says bluntly. (Most people try to encourage him, but not everyone — Snooki outright says that they can never possibly be friends again, and even considering The Situation’s newfound sobriety, you can’t really blame her.)

When Jersey Shore debuted back in 2009, it caught a weird wave of Recessionary nihilism: It was loud and dumb, but the relentlessness of the cast’s partying felt almost violent in its extremity. (You could also point out that, after a decade that placed an extreme value on Sex and the City-esque expensive cocktails, a nation of people with empty wallets could really groove to a show about barely-employed kids with zero education taking bottom-shelf shots of tequila.) It was fun and a bit transgressive — it sort of felt like reality TV’s version of punk rock, or at least reality TV’s version of pop-punk. The fun stopped a long time ago. For the first time, though, “fun” doesn’t seem to be the show’s purpose. There’s a great moment in the middle of the episode when The Situation and Vinny share a long conversation on a park bench. They start talking about their respective problems — Sitch’s drug addiction, Vinny’s panic attacks:

Vinny: “Do they have self-help s— in rehab? Like, spiritual s—?”

The Situation: “Yeah, you’re s’posed to meditate and s— like that.”

Vinny: “I go through the same s—. Like, I have to, like, crowd my mind with as much positive as I can to, like, not let in the bad habits. You know?”

The Situation: “I’m so more in the moment than I ever was.”

Vinny: “That’s how I’m trying to live my life. Like, in the moment, everywhere I go. You know what I mean? It’s funny how we don’t appreciate what we have until…”

The Situation: “Until it’s almost taken away from me. Almost everything was taken away from me. Almost everything.”

The vast majority of the run of Jersey Shore has been a long slow descent into drunken anarchy. The first episode of the new season feels like an attempt to claw out of that descent — to make peace with the past, to start planning for the future, to figure out how to be a healthy human being. Yes, the show also features club-kid tomfoolery; yes, Ronnie gets drunk and argues with Sammi.

But there are moments in the season premiere that are really just about people trying desperately to grow up. In that context, MTV’s decision to cancel Jersey Shore makes a sad amount of sense: It’s like the network is outright admitting that the cast was only interesting when they were destroying themselves. Sadly, that’s probably also true for the vast majority of Jersey Shore viewers. But that’s just another reason why this final season of Jersey Shore is weirdly thrilling: In a culture that has become addicted to train-wrecks, Jersey Shore has become a show about survivors trying to put themselves back together.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @DarrenFranich

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Jersey Shore

Follow Snooki, the Situation, Pauly, Ronnie, Sammi, Jwoww, Vinny, and Deena as they party, smush, and GTL
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