New Jersey: We Love It / We Hate It

Growing up in New Jersey, jammed all the way out on the East Coast and in between a bunch of people, it’s hard to imagine what life is like in the rest of America. In school, the memorization of the capitals of other states mostly seems like an act of politeness. Sure, the capital of Wyoming is Cheyenne, but it’s not like that knowledge is being stored for an actual trip there. This dynamic of awareness of other place ‘out there’ and standoffishness (who cares?) works in both directions; while New Jerseyans have trouble imagining life elsewhere, the population west of the Delaware River has some ideas about how things go in New Jersey that relate to big hair and strong accents. Until recently, this was all residents of New Jersey had to worry about when defending themselves throughout the United States and abroad. However, the recent focus on New Jersey as a site to mine for reality television gold raises some questions about the tension between celebrating a local identity and engaging in troubling self-parody.

David Chase’s vision of New Jersey in The Sopranos, while no by no means comprehensive because of the type of story the show told, often read like a love letter to the State. From the opening sequence in which Tony Soprano leaves the Lincoln Tunnel and travels down the New Jersey Turnpike to his home in West Caldwell, the landscape of New Jersey – for good or ill – was presented frankly to the audience.

This sequence set the tone for the way the show was going to deal with its setting; a choice that privileged honesty over exploitation. Rather than make gestures to the audience to the effect of, “Hey, it’s ugly! All the jokes about industrial waste were obviously true!,” this sequence said, “Yeah, go ahead and look. This is what there is to see here. Is that a problem?”

However, in the post-Sopranos television landscape, much of the Jersey landscape has changed. Possibly riding on the success of The Sopranos or maybe created for unknown and unrelated reasons, shows like Bravo’s The Real Housewives of New Jersey and MTV’s Jersey Shore, the two most popular reality shows that focus on life in New Jersey, seem to actively cultivate finger pointing and giggling at life in New Jersey. The effect is one that celebrates something about New Jersey that might not deserve positive reinforcement while maintaining a tone that constantly turns towards the viewers and says behind its hand, “Are these people for real?”

Whatever the reasons, the “New Jersey” element that troubles me a bit on these reality shows carries a helpful boost for the networks riding this tanned, predominantly Italian-American wave. It seems the New Jersey label serves as an indicator that the show will include people behaving in expectedly bad ways on camera. In turn, the New Jersey label appears to give cast members – actual New Jersey residents or not – license to exhibit stereotypically bad behavior.

The Real Housewives of New Jersey will have adults flipping tables in front of their children and Jersey Shore vacationers will make viewers wonder how much chlorine is necessary to fully sanitize the rooftop hot tub. People will watch and discuss these programs because the entangled behavior seems both familiar and startlingly insightful about a culture that exists amidst a tangle of highways winding about near the East Coast.

As an admitted fan of The Real Housewives of New Jersey, it’s easy for me to see why the show is popular – it has a bucket-load of conflict and both seasons of conflict has led to drama-laden, highly watchable reality television. As an added bonus, the women involved in these interwoven problems think passive-aggression is cowardly. Sure, the particular Real Housewives will gossip and opine about each other, but they’re not afraid of confrontation, either. That can be amazingly satisfying to watch.

The first season of MTV’s Jersey Shorehowever, was a whole other story. Yes, there was conflict and bad behavior. Yet it was so boring.

Aside from the fact that only one person in the entire cast is actually from New Jersey (Sammi), there was something far more problematically manufactured about the entire Jersey Shore experience. (I’m allowing a wide margin for manufacturing, especially since the current reality show trend of planting questions and topics of conversation among cast members is especially prevalent on The Real Housewives of New Jersey.) Like every MTV show, there’s plenty of alcohol and confessional drama involved, but Jersey Shore always seemed to be trying to force a moment.

That moment rarely arrived. Despite the soundtrack, the actual events of a particular episode very rarely lived up to the music and the producers’ hopes. Instead, Jersey Shore came off as desperate for something to happen, and every time all hell broke loose and someone called the cops to break up a girl fight, you could practically hear the producers patting each other on the back over the wail of the sirens.

As this second season of The Real Housewives of New Jersey winds down with some minor assault at a fancy party and MTV continues to build toward the crescendo that will be the premiere of Jersey Shore in Miami (like I said, that “Jersey” label is so powerful that you can’t even get rid of it when your show is approximately 1,273 miles away), I wonder about the real goals and appeal of these shows. While it’s probably popular to say that both Bravo and MTV are trying to capitalize on New Jersey’s semi-bad reputation by enhancing it, what are they adding to this conversation? Really, what’s new, here?

Another thing to consider: Why, oh why, are we interested in things that are supposedly unsurprising for most of America? What will happen when the interest peters out? Who will we look to for our bad behavior when we don’t have New Jersey, any more?

Is it possible that someday we will be bored with the babes of Jersey Shore?