By Darren Franich
April 05, 2018 at 01:00 PM EDT
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1. No one from Jersey Shore looks the same on Jersey Shore: Family Vacation. Plastic surgery is an open conversation, breasts done and then redone, faces lifted into Kardashiana. “Nicole’s face has the price tag hanging off of it,” says Vinny — which sounds mean written down and doesn’t sound mean how Vinny says it. Mean-but-loving: That was the dream of Jersey Shore, how the cast would say/do awful things to each other in the nighttime, then hug it out by dawn. Or maybe that was the nightmare of Jersey Shore: The cast would hug it out by dawn, but then say/do awful things to each other all over again when night fell.

2. The men actually look much stranger than the women. They’ve aged diagonal. Onetime by-default regular-type Vinny is skinny and fit, in that instantly impressive but gradually eerie way where “fitness” is what he talks about and “diet” is how he lives. He eats pepperoni but not crust, the meat not the bun. Vinny is self-aware about his own fussiness; when Ronnie finishes grilling the meat too quickly, Vinny screeches, “I’m nowhere near done with my sides!” in parody of TV-chef nitpickery. This is cute, but self-deprecating your own good health is never actually funny, like how it’s never cute when white people post about #WhitePeopleProblems. Ronnie looks the most hilarious, his tips less frosted than frostbitten. He looks like if Vin Diesel was Guy Fieri. The scariest transformation, though, is the lack of transformation. “You look like you haven’t aged ever,” is how JWoww greets Pauly D. This proves my long-maligned theory that Pauly D is the last of the immortal Nephilim, the race of angelic god-men from Genesis Book 6, who disappeared after the Great Flood. “I’m busy doing my work DJing all over the world,” is how Pauly describes his life today; he’s a DJ.

3. And the Situation, oh boy, oh gosh, oh wow, well. Mike was one of the two Jersey Shore cast members that even people who never watched Jersey Shore knew about. That cultural memory underscores how sidelined he felt, by his roommates and the series itself. Always tricky to analyze the true feelings of reality TV meatpuppets, but nobody seemed to like Sitch by season 3 (except Pauly D, who’s monstrous enough to like everybody). Sitch’s main plot point across seasons 4 and 5 was the constant, never-fully-substantiated claim that he’d hooked up with Snooki. This tells you how boring things got there for a while. But the Situation’s legacy was further complicated when he returned to season 6 declaring his sobriety, after a trip to rehab for prescription drug addiction. (This feels, in hindsight and all sincerity, like an eerie preview of the opioid epidemic that ravaged this American decade.)

4. But Mike’s trip to rehab was also a cold-water reminder that everyone on Jersey Shore was waging daily trench warfare against their own bodies. Aggressive workouts at the gym, aggressive solar baking to get a tan, rinse and repeat between tsunamic alcohol intake. It was thus impossible to properly enjoy the final season in any meaningful way. The fun “Cabs’a heah!” stuff felt so empty. The sorrowful sober drama felt like a halfhearted recovery memoir stapled to a frathouse photo album. So season 6 is one of the worst well-intentioned TV shows I’ve ever watched, whereas season 3 is one of the best apocalyptic TV events of my life.

5. Jersey Shore: Family Vacation begins with an extended prologue. The cast gathers together in small groups of two or three, preparing to reunite in Miami. I assume this is also the plot of the first two acts of Avengers: Infinity War, with “reunite in Miami” replaced by “something something Thanos.” It is interesting that Snooki and JWoww are both happily married moms, still together with Jionni and Roger, two couples withstanding multiple seasons of Jersey Shore and Snooki & JWoww and whatever Shore Flip was. It is weird that Pauly and Ronnie have both wound up in Las Vegas, the same place half the Agent Coopers wound up in the third season of Twin Peaks. But the Situation’s situation beggars easy description. He is engaged in a tax-evasion case with, like, the American government. “They even have the nickname ‘The Situation’ in the paperwork,” Mike tells us. “The United States v. The Situation.” Mike discusses his looming legal troubles the way people at class reunions discuss recent job setbacks: “It’s rough out there in the streets, you know what I mean?” Him saying this line made me burst out laughing, and I felt bad for laughing, and I rewound so I could watch him say it again.

6. Tax evasion as a crime is too banal to be funny and too popular to seem truly villainous in the context of everything the Situation ever did on television. Evading taxes legally is a rich-person pastime, and many Americans try to “evade” taxes by voting against them. And in a sense, Sitch is honoring reality TV tradition here, following in the foosteps of the first Survivor winner (and Al Capone, a reality star from a media era before television). But I can’t express how weird it is to watch the Situation, an arguably 35-year-old man, perform the ritual of financial justice throughout the Family Vacation premiere, while the rest of his cast mates commence their own rituals of boozing-clubbing-fighting. “He may never be able to come here, at all,” is how Vinny describes the Situation’s predicament. He also might go to jail, which sounds better than living through a few weeks of lost weekends in a sinking metropolis, surrounded by bad memories of That Time You Were The Person You Went To Rehab To Escape, and then all those cameras everywhere all the time.

7. I also can’t express how weird it is to watch the Situation — an alleged 30-something, two years sober, facing serious jail time — rejoin a franchise whose whole existence depends on the opposite of sobriety and a style of partying that is borderline criminal on purpose. But the weirdest thing about the Situation on Family Vacation is that he seems to have two distinct voices. When he talks about his problems with the courts, he sounds like a 45-year-old accountant expressing somber concern about how the markets are doing. When he talks about how much he wants to go down to Miami, he overcorrects into what sounds like a bad impression of the Situation as performed by the third-funniest guy in the office in 2010. If Jersey Shore were fictional, we would come up with specific character names for these distinctive sides of Michael Sorrentino’s personality, like “Heisenberg” or “Slippin’ Jimmy.” But this is Jersey Shore, where everyone clearly delineates their own split personalities, and in the first two hours Mike describes himself as “The Court Situation” (because he’s in court) and “The Designation” (because he’s an eternal DD).

8. Why was Jersey Shore so popular? No explanation has ever sounded quite right. It was controversial, and casually sexy in a way that made sex look like a goofy farce. This explains why it was talked about, but it doesn’t explain 8.4 million viewers for the third season premiere. And that was practically the peak. Consider how season 4 was depressing nonsense about Americans doing nothing for 12 episodes in a foreign city they seemed to hate — and its finale still earned 6.6 million viewers. I guess certain aspects of the show look Trumpy in hindsight, but everything from 1987 onward looks Trumpy in hindsight. And in the cloistered universe of MTV reality shows, the initial run of Jersey Shore actually felt like a brazenly scuzzy Recessionary rebuke to the glossy decadence of something like The Hills. It helped that the least funny person on Shore (Sammi) was a hundred times funnier than the smartest person on The Hills (Audrina). And at a time when a young generation was growing paranoid-for-life about their job prospects, there was a double catharsis built into the show. It was escapist and cautionary. All the Shore cast ever did was party, which was fun to watch if you were a workaholic struggling for a foothold in any of the industries that started dying in 2009. But also, all the Shore cast ever did was make regrettable decisions, which made your own regrettable decisions look forgivable. So the stars of this show were aspirational specifically because they were reprehensible. Christ, that does sound like Trump.

9. Required reminder that Vinny was recently tweeting at our president about the science of climate change.

10. Why is Jersey Shore so fun to write about? This is an embarrassingly inside-baseball question that probably nobody cares about, except people who have written about the show for this entire decade. But since I’m hovering around the 1,500-word mark and I haven’t even gotten past describing the first half-hour of the two-hour Family Vacation premiere, it’s a question that is very much forefront in my mind. This was a great reality TV cast, maybe, a feat of social engineering. Some people wanted to find love, which meant every episode had some kind of relationship drama, and some people just wanted to smush, which meant every episode was a study in youth hook-uppery. Anyone could suddenly start a fight with anyone else. A couple people were genuinely funny and a couple were genuinely sad. People accused Jersey Shore of perpetuating stereotypes, which was true, but part of the problem with that accusation was that the stereotypical characters were all actual human people, willing themselves to become the most parodic versions of themselves. So writing about Jersey Shore is somehow like writing about real life, and writing about a cartoon, and writing about what happens when real people choose to transform themselves into cartoons.

11. People also choose to transform into cartoon versions of themselves when they drink alcohol or use social media. Both those vices can make a writer’s career, or break it.

12. I don’t even know how to build up to this, but it just occurred to me and it sounds true, so: What made Jersey Shore cool was also what made it silly. “Cool” and “silly” aren’t really signifiers that go hand-in-hand — in the only terms I think everyone will understand, it’s the distance between Christian Bale’s Bruce Wayne and Adam West’s Batman. And I’m not sure either term has much value today, because cool people only like to brag about how uncool they are, and anyone who self-describes as silly probably isn’t. But there was a baked-in complexity with Jersey Shore, almost Greek Tragic. The cast members all worked hard on themselves, describing rituals of self-care taken to ludicrous extremes (gym and tan, sure, but who ever knew party people so obsessed with laundry?). In the broadest possible strokes, their activities could seem “cool” in some ineffable high-school-drama way, hook-ups and love affairs and isn’t it fun to be famous. And yet the show’s whole vibe rendered every action hilarious, fuel for perpetual ball-busting. They were working so hard to wind up so embarrassed. So they were lovable losers even when they won, and loathsome grotesques even when they were being sincere. Following the metaphor, this makes Jersey Shore a live-action version of The Lego Batman Movie, except dumber and funnier and more offensive and more important.

13. Sammi has decided not to join the Family Vacation. Good for her, and yet she is a constant presence in these first two hours, like how David Bowie was somehow all over last year’s Twin Peaks. Ronnie keeps talking about her, and actually manages to successfully start a fight about Sam with someone else. And then the big reveal of the first hour is that DJ Pauly D, the DJ, has created a life-size Sammi Sweetheart doll, which actually says (via some sort of talkbox mechanism) iconic Sammi sayings like “Rahhhhhnnnn!” and “Staaaaahhhhp!” The poor Sammi doll gets brutalized throughout the premiere. She falls off a kitchen counter, and her eyeball rolls across the floor. Snooki tries to carry her off the couch and winds up pulling her wig off, which makes the Sammi doll look like Persis Khambatta in Star Trek: The Motion Picture, a cast-reunion project which is only marginally weirder than Jersey Shore: Family Vacation. Eventually they try to drown the Sammi doll, but she floats to the top of the pool.

14. It sounds almost inhuman to say that the most compelling person on Family Vacation is definitely Ronnie. Snooki, JWoww, Deena, and Vinny seem like relatively well-adjusted people with good relationships and a strong family life. The Situation is facing jail time and is so sober that he doesn’t even smoke cigarettes anymore, so you find yourself hoping he doesn’t do anything. Pauly D has a great life that would seem empty if he wasn’t obviously having so much fun. But Ronnie actually has something to lose and actually seems capable of losing everything for the most ridiculous reasons. When Family Vacation starts, he is leaving his seven-months-pregnant girlfriend behind. “She knows my lifestyle,” he explains vaguely, “She knows there’s always gonna be the girls.” Once he’s in the Miami house, he immediately starts relitigating long-ago plotlines, as if no time has passed at all. He gets angry when people bring up Sammi. He talks a lot about how much he used to hate the Situation. He cries. His opening-credits catchphrase is, “This might not have been the best idea.”

15. I have to just zoom in for a second and explain why Ronnie says he’s angry at Sammi. “She’s not here,” he tells Deena. “She’s not our friend. She doesn’t have our back. I’m having a kid. She’s seven months pregnant. I’m here.” This is a wild loop of logic. My ex-girlfriend, who I cheated on after famously fighting across multiple seasons of television, is not a good person because she wouldn’t come hang out in a house with me, the aforementioned ex-boyfriend. Whereas I left the mother of my child in her final trimester so I could get drunk surrounded by girls at da club.

16. Family Vacation is a pretty okay reality show I will watch occasionally. Their house in Miami looks too expensive, but it also looks like the kind of place someone accused of tax evasion would spend a vacation. It’s fun to see a bunch of extreme personalities reunited as older, domesticated, somewhat healthier individuals, and it’s a bummer to see some of them grasping toward a persona they performed naturally when they were younger. Like, Nicole seems to be struggling to find “Snooki.” But she does urinate in a gigantic pool in the gigantic backyard of that gigantic house in Miami, which is the kind of event that will trend mythic when our descendants write about what Florida was before the Great Flood. Family Vacation is more fun than the last three seasons of Jersey Shore and nowhere near as insane as the first three seasons of Jersey Shore, so I would grade it a B. I can’t believe this new series will be half as successful as the original series. But the original series would have been considered a cable TV phenomenon if it had a quarter of its actual viewership. So it’s a brand deposit for MTV, which has already ordered a second season.

17. “It’s like, a weird era,” says JWoww. She’s specifically talking about how people dance in Miami: “Everyone’s bougie … almost too cool to be a sweaty f—ing mess and rip s—.” But she’s also making a larger point. This is, like, a weird era we’re living in, and the most interesting thing about Family Vacation is how the Jersey Shore cast already feel like renegades from distant long-ago, a mere five years post-cancellation.”I don’t think anyone fist-pumps anymore,” says Snooki, but they still do, man, they still do.

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