Call for Essays About Any Aspect of Popular Culture, Present or Past

Bookmark and Share

“Are you dying to be social / is this how you hang out?
Smokin’ and drinkin’ and coming home stinkin’…
Waking up drunk feeling that you are stuck
In a rut that will never be filled
The truth of the matter / it even gets sadder
And someday it definitely will.”
—The Singing Mechanic, “Dying to Be Social”

Jersey Shore is a docusoap/reality series from MTV that dresses up the network’s Real World format with crude emphases on ethnic (mostly Italian) stereotypes and an excess of bad behavior. On the show, eight individuals in their 20s live and work—but mostly party—together during the summer in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. There is no denying the show’s impact on the American media and popular culture, as the series, its cast and controversies have been covered by NBC, CBS, ABC, Fox, and featured on countless websites and several product tie-ins. The first season of the show, which was shot in August 2009 and aired the following winter, was a monster hit that caught the attention of a larger segment of the population than most MTV programs and set ratings records for the cable network.

How to explain the popularity of such a program? On one hand, the show seems to be part of a New Jersey-themed television trend, joined by The Real Housewives of New Jersey, Jerseylicious, Jersey Couture, and Cake Boss—certainly a different caliber than their high-achieving godfather The Sopranos. Perhaps it’s Jersey Shore’s vacation conceit which allows viewers to fully embrace the escapist nature of the program. When viewed in this way, the show is not so much a “guilty” pleasure as an “earned” one. Arriving on DVD less than a year after going into production, Jersey Shore UNCENSORED: Season One is timed to excite loyal viewers and generate new ones for the second season, which is just beginning to air.

cover art

Jersey Shore UNCENSORED: Season One

(US DVD: 20 Jul 2010)

Prior to watching Jersey Shore for the first time on this DVD set, I only knew the series through the incessant news coverage it received over the past year. The show’s characters lacked context. They always seemed to be performing. One of them appeared to me in an inescapable Baskin-Robbins pop-up advertisement. Yet to watch the entire first season in a commercial-free, largely uncensored format is to experience certain kinds of media and cultural shifts that involve role playing, insecurity, and the modern state of masculinity and femininity.

I suspected that MTV had, over the years, decided to deliver raunchier content to an increasingly younger viewership. That dissonance is disturbing, but thinking about its moral consequences in an abstract manner is entirely different from experiencing them more or less directly. In other words, before watching Jersey Shore, I was somewhat concerned about the effect of MTV on the priorities and values of its impressionable audience. After sitting through hours of the series, it occurs to me that the youth about whom I was concerned are no longer the network’s audience, but instead its stars. Most of them seem to be aware that there is a direct relationship between outrageous behavior and screen time.

The cast of Jersey Shore consists of Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, Ronnie Ortiz-Magro, Sammi “Sweetheart” Giancola, Paul “DJ Pauly D” DelVecchio, Jenni “JWoww” Farley, Vinny Guadagnino, and briefly, Angelina “Jolie” Pivarnick. Almost all of them are foulmouthed, cartoonishly tanned, and garishly dressed and made-up. There is no doubt that most of them were cast into specific roles—versions of themselves that were attractive to a calculating, savvy staff at MTV. I suppose the application of nicknames such as “The Situation”, “Snooki”, etc., helps to inoculate against their actual selves being exposed too deeply. However, the insistence on characterization and performance are unfortunate, since the show is only truly fascinating when the actual accidentally rises to the surface from beneath the artificial.

Jersey Shore is indeed worth watching, mostly for its tensions and contradictions. There’s a rather obvious disparity between the scale of the series and the dramatic stakes it tries to create. To the network’s credit, MTV does not attempt to hide the fact that the entire series covers only one month in these characters’ lives. Yet the show loses credibility when that straightforwardness about the length of production is combined with the way the characters are asked to talk about their relationships.

In “confessional” addresses directly to the camera and in conversation amongst themselves, they apply overly emotional language about falling in love and the strength and intensity of their bonds with one another. For example, the love story arc between “The Situation” and “Sweetheart” occurs entirely within the first two days they know each other (a fact that they repeatedly acknowledge), yet throughout the series their past relationship is presented as meaningful and consequential, providing much of the conflict between “The Situation” and Ronnie, who eventually “falls in love” with “Sweetheart”.

Another interesting tension within the series is the clash between traditional family/“Italian” values and the excessive behavior of the characters. These nods to tradition are fleeting, such as the saying of grace before meals and the display of strong bonds with parents and siblings during family visits. Yet the hint of a wholesome foundation does not carry over into their nightly, debauched visits to a club called Karma. There’s no small degree of irony in the name of this featured setting, as the show is almost exclusively devoted to the chronicling of bad decisions by characters who consistently underestimate negative consequences.

Associate Professor of Film and Video Studies at George Mason University.

Channel Surfing
13 Nov 2014
Rather than recapitulating the faux sentiment of veterans' poppies, BBC's Centenary Collection gives viewers a chance to really understand WWI.
10 Nov 2014
Executive producer Bob Brush and actor Dan Lauria ruminate on The Wonder Years timeless nostalgia.
By Seth M. Walker
5 Nov 2014
Ostensibly a silly, raunchy cartoon sitcom, Netflix's BoJack Horseman actually raises some significant existential questions.
21 Jul 2014
American Revolutionary wants to offer the appearance of revolution while anesthetizing any deeper understanding of the forces involved.
Related Articles
20 Mar 2013
Post-Hurricane Sandy, the questions the final season of Jersey Shore raise are disturbing: Can we ever go back to the shore? Can we ever rebuild what was broken?
By Sara Jane Pohlman
27 Jun 2011
Twenty-something students opine about their love-hate relationship with GTL, smooshing and the gang that’s always DTF at Jersey Shore.
21 Apr 2011
Unlike other formats, the sitcom allows us to suspend disbelief because we know this is a set, we know there’s a reason we’ve never actually seen a New York street in Friends, or the fourth wall of an apartment in any show. And we’re okay with that.
26 Jan 2011
Television executives should resolve to do a few things for me this year.
Now on PopMatters
PM Picks

© 1999-2015 All rights reserved.™ and PopMatters™ are trademarks
of PopMatters Media, Inc.

PopMatters is wholly independently owned and operated.