The legacy of 'Jersey Shore': How will cultural history judge Snooki and her spawn?
Jersey Shore signs off tonight, ending six seasons of drunken foolishness, its place in pop culture semi-secure. It is one of the most successful, and most controversial, pieces of programming MTV has ever devised (and that’s saying something, when you’re also the birthplace of A Shot at Love II with Tila Tequila, the crappiest piece of junk ever to deploy a Roman numeral). But what is Jersey Shore‘s lasting significance, its enduring impact?
I would argue: Absolutely none. We live in an age that strives to find meaning in anything that attains a mass audience; a time when “so bad it’s good” is an aesthetic category; when any TV show that incites protests is deemed to be of intrinsic value for what it says about “our times.” But by any measure, there is nothing about Jersey Shore that merits enshrining it in any category of TV history other than “Time Killer.” As I can attest in preparing to write this piece, it doesn’t hold up as entertaining in reruns; it already plays like one of those ancient artifacts of papyrus — a newspaper, I believe they were called — that has been crumpled and tossed to the air.
To be sure, when it premiered, Jersey Shore was viewed initially as shockingly vulgar, and immediately set off a round of debate as to just how much of an insult it was, not so much to the average viewer’s intelligence, but as a politically incorrect portrayal of an ethnic group. Italian-American organizations objected to this glorification of idiots who used the word “guido” as a term of affection; New Jersey governor Chris Christie jabbed at the show as being “negative for New Jersey,” in part because… the cast wasn’t from New Jersey. His reasoning was that renegade-stupid New Yorkers were invading his turf and the show’s title would confuse viewers into thinking the series presented “the real New Jersey.”
There are obviously ways to justify a lot of reality TV. For one thing, there are good shows in the genre, and fun ones, and others that shed some light on subcultures some of us might not otherwise know about. The latter can range from Bravo’s Real Housewives franchise on back to VH-1’s The (White) Rapper Show. Indeed, former VH-1 programmer Michael Hirschorn made “The Case for Reality TV” well in a piece by the same name in a 2007 issue of The Atlantic Monthly, suggesting that reality TV “presents some of the most vital political debate in America, particularly about class and race.” (An even better piece about the show by Alyssa Rosenberg in a 2010 Atlantic Monthly — what is it about the Atlantic and Jersey Shore? tidal attraction? — was a tongue-in-cheek comparison between the manners of the cast with other resort-culture objects such as Jane Austen’s Pride and Prejudice and the Sheridan play The Rivals.)
But Jersey Shore quickly proved that all it existed to do was to provide its audience with scenes of people acting like arrogant sots, falling down and hooking up. The season spent in Italy is one long portrait of not merely ugly Americans, but angry, ignorant ones, whining or raging when Italians “don’t speak English.” To try and extrapolate meaning from Jersey Shore is to inflate a production, and protagonists, that don’t bear up to the slightest close scrutiny. Seeing the Shore cast members promoting themselves on Jimmy Kimmel Live this week, they already seemed like Survivor contestants that had been voted off our vast island. The vaunted Situation looked like a man whose once-famed abdominal muscles were growing flabby as fast as his vocabulary. New mother Snooki has settled in to the glazed appearance of a homemaker who doesn’t yet, and perhaps never will, appreciate the value of home and family.
When Kimmel raised the rumor that Pauly D might become the next to-catch-a-victim, predatory bachelor on ABC’s long-running date-nightmare show, his response was, “I would love that! That would be a good idea!” Of course it would be: It would keep him where he longs to be — in front of a camera. Without it, he disappears into obscurity.
Just because the Jersey Shore era has come to a close, let’s not pump it up with either instant nostalgia or importance, or try to tease out the metaphysics or parse its semiotic significance. Let’s just be glad it’s going. And say a heartfelt prayer for Snooki’s luckless baby.
On to Buckwild!