The Italian vacation ends with a whimper, and The Situation promises more bad times ahead

By Darren Franich
Updated October 21, 2011 at 06:00 AM EDT
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Jersey Shore may be a bottom-feeding show created by a network that has spent 30 years perfecting the art of bottom-feeding. It may feature a cast of vagrant alcoholic robo-people who have made — and will continue to make — untold millions of dollars by metaphorically dancing naked on a metaphorical dance floor flooded up to their metaphorical shins in metaphorical syphilitic emo-vomit. It may be a monument to everything that is terrible in modern youth culture, post-post-9/11 America, and the human soul.

But this does not mean that the show is not entertaining. Nor, for that matter, does it mean that the show is not important. Sometimes, the silliest dregs of zeitgeist popularity can speak volumes about Where We Are Now. Even the most vapid pop song, or the most unnecessary big-budget blockbuster threequel, or the most poorly-written vampire novel can teach us something important about the culture. A seashell is just a seashell, but if you hold it up to your ear, you can hear the sounds of the distant ocean.

Consider the Monkees. Now, no one could ever conceivably argue that the Monkees were a great band, or even that they were a particularly good band. (The notion that they were a “band” at all would seem offensive, if we still lived in a real civilization, and not in an amoral dystopia.) The Monkees were conceived as an establishment cash-in on the rock n’ roll trend that all the kids loved. Of course, the only reason the kids loved said rock n’ roll was because it was anti-establishment, because it was real, but no one is better at manufacturing reality than the establishment.

Hence, the Monkees: A band built in a laboratory specifically for television. The Monkees recorded some of the catchiest pop songs in history, almost all of them written by non-Monkees. That actually seemed vaguely insulting to the general music listening public back then. But now that we live in an age when pop starlets get courtesy writing credits because they totally wrote that lyric where they go “Uhh, yeah” in the chorus — and thus, they can assure themselves and their fans that they are not mere vehicles for the relentless brilliance of the dark cabal of Swedish songwriters — the whole story of the Monkees looks uncannily prescient. That’s how musicians get made. Was there ever another way?

I bring up the Monkees for three reasons. First, because they represent a primordial vision of the modern reality show cast: A group of young people who didn’t know each other, who had to pretend to like each other for the cameras. Second, because they really did put their name on some ridiculously gorgeous pop songs: Anyone who doesn’t get a bit misty listening to “Daydream Believer” is a cynical pedant freakshow, and I hope they enjoy their corner of purgatory where every album Radiohead recorded post-Amnesiac plays on repeat forever. And third, because the Monkees created the most important work of their career after their moment in the zeitgeist was over: The surreal 1968 film Head, in which the band committed pop suicide by deconstructing themselves. (Last-minute meta-deconstruction is a common thread in the land of Post-Popularity Synthetic Zeitgeist Sensations. See also: The Hills, a show whose last two minutes are roughly one million times more interesting than the entire series that preceded it.)

And that gives me a glimmer of hope for Jersey Shore, which last night ended its first truly inessential season with a bland whimper. There was so much talk about returning to Jersey and the house in Seaside Heights and Karma, you began to get the feeling the Shore producers had decided to cut their losses and just turn this whole Florentine misadventure into a commercial for Jersey Shore season 5, kind of like how Iron Man 2 was just a commercial for The Avengers. Except that Avengers looks pretty awesome if you squint a little, and the prospects for the next season of Jersey Shore are uncertain at best.

NEXT: The Situation is the hero! The Situation is the villain!What happened last night? Well, everyone talked a lot about how much they were going to miss the pizzeria. Sam said that she loved everyone who worked at the pizzeria. Vinny said, “We kind of formed a family with the people in the pizzeria.” Pauly D clowned around with his pals in the pizzeria. (Bless Pauly D, who works tirelessly at crafting potential catchphrases: “I’m on a break!” Pauly D has somehow turned being The “I Didn’t Do It” Boy into a reasonable multimedia business model.) Deena plucked one of her pink panties out of the ether and bestowed it upon her friends in the pizzeria. The whole gang hugged everyone at the pizzeria, and talked about how much they were going to miss the pizzeria, and all I could think the whole time was “Why in God’s name do I care about this freaking pizzeria?” I think I can count on one finger the number of minutes the show spent in the pizzeria this season.

This wouldn’t be a problem if we had spent the season watching the gang do lots of fun, exciting things — if the whole elevator-pitch behind season 4 (In the words of Troy McClure, “Transplanting already popular characters into new locales and situations!”) had actually worked. But after a front half dominated by weirdo twins and The Situation’s self-concussion, this season quickly disintegrated into ambient paranoia. Also, according to my notes, someone named Jionni was involved, but my notes must be wrong, since Jionni isn’t a real name.

I suppose if there was any real drama to last night’s episode, it was the Mike Question: Will Sitch come to Jersey? This was never really in doubt. The cast knew that Mike would come to Jersey, because he loves drama. We know that The Situation will go to Jersey, because we all read the Internet. And yet, I still found this central drama fascinating.

You all know that I have two main theories about The Situation’s role in Jersey Shore: First, that he is the show’s hero, the character who is most explicitly concerned with maintaining the family, and also the person who seems most aware of his own inherent faults; and second, that he is the show’s villain, a cruel puppet master who stages girl-robberies, plans crude pranks, and generally spends his evenings plotting fresh hell for the people in his adopted family.

And this is why I find myself oddly optimistic about the fifth season of Jersey Shore. I don’t know if the show can ever achieve the melodramatic perfection of season 3, or even the high-times pleasure of season 2 — and we can all agree that the innocence of season 1 is long gone, left behind in a distant past before the plastic surgeons and the Barry Bonds diet (which is Congressionally legal!) But I suspect there will be a reckoning in Seaside Heights. The last couple seasons of Shore have ended on downbeat notes — Recall the Bad-Omen Crow of Doom from season 2, or the apparent finality of the 500th Sam-Ron break-up in season 3.

But for my money, season 4 had the most terrifying, and somehow wonderful, ending yet: The Situation chortling happily with the gang as he got into the taxi for the airport, while we heard him mutter something in the Confessional: “Say hello to the bad guy.” The Situation has chosen his side now. He is The Villain. The rest of the cast think they have his number. They don’t know the hell coming their way.

NEXT: Art is the History of HistoryBut let’s not leave Florence just yet, fellow viewers. After all, the cast was good enough to treat themselves — and, by extension, us — to an exciting tour of the city. Admittedly, no one was particularly excited about the trip. They had to choose between Art and History — or, in Shore lingo, “That stuff they have in museums that puts me to sleep” and “That stuff that happened before we existed and brought meaning to this senseless world.” They were told to meet their tour guide in front of the Duomo. Ronnie explained that their tour guide was “a chubby little round potato guy,” which sounds kind of funny coming from a man whose face looks like a Halloween pumpkin rotting over a metal football.

Their kindly tour guide, Bernardo, welcomed them to the art history tour of Florence. “Are we gonna be walking the whole time?” complained The Situation, who is a grown 45-year-old man. “History is not my thing,” said Snooki, “And walking around for 10 hours is not my thing.” But the rest of the gang perked up a little bit when Bernardo pointed to a closed shutter and said, “That is where Leonardo Da Vinci painted the Mona Lisa.” Vinny, Pauly, Ronnie, Sammi, J-Woww: They all looked up in awe and fascination. Maybe they only know about Leonardo Da Vinci because their mom read The Da Vinci Code, or maybe they only care about the Mona Lisa because Sesame Street told them to care, but by god, they noticed. Behind that closed shutter, one of the great thinkers in human history created something beautiful.

Further down the tour, Deena expressed her admiration for the David: “I think the statue is pretty sexy. I’d do it.” Snooki was typically unimpressed: “He could have a spray-tan, and also his wiener just doesn’t really cut it. But probably because it’s soft.” Snooki just seemed a bit confused by the whole concept of art. When Bernardo described the iconic depiction of Cupid, Nicole asked, “So they’re real? The babies with wings?”

The whole time, The Situation lurked in the background. He stared in the opposite direction. He sat down on lonely stairwells. He almost looked like he was waiting for something. Certainly, his housemates thought that he was just pouting, and ignored him. But they did not realize what we viewers know to be true. Mike has completed his final transformation. He used to believe in his family; but now, he knows that that belief was faulty, that in fact all belief is ridiculous. He’s like Tony in the closing episodes of The Sopranos, or Walter White in the recent finale of Breaking Bad: He is become Death, the Destroyer of Worlds.

Later, at the lovely hilltop cafe, he apologized for his sins, and ordered all the girls flowers, and grinned his sheepish grin. The girls did not believe his apologies, and — crucially — neither did he. Later that night, he tried to get into a fight with a kid — because The Destroyer does not know any limitations. Back at the villa people complained about the Situation, as usual. But he no longer cared. He sat alone on his cruel throne in the cigarette porch, smiling.

It was as if that blind rage had washed him clean, rid him of hope; for the first time, in that night alive with signs and stars, he opened himself to the benign indifference of the world. Finding it so much like himself — so like a brother, really — he felt that he had been happy and that he was happy again. For everything to be consummated, for him to feel less alone, he had only to wish that there be a large crowd of spectators the day of his execution. And that they greet him with cries of hate.

Follow Darren on Twitter: @EWDarrenFranich

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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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