Come at Me, Bro!: What Do 20-Somethings See in 'Jersey Shore'?

Sara Jane Pohlman

Twenty-something students opine about their love-hate relationship with GTL, smooshing and the gang that’s always DTF at Jersey Shore.

For the recently comatose, Jersey Shore is a reality show on MTV that rounds up eight young, boisterous Italian Americans and tosses them into a house on the New Jersey beachfront. The cast is heavily tanned and made up, their hair secured with epic amounts of product and no shortage of glittery accessories. Add plenty of alcohol, unlimited access to nightclubs and remove most inhibitions and responsibilities -- then follow them around to see what drama stirs up -- and you’ve got a potent mixture for a reality TV hit. This magic mixture has earned the highest ratings ever for an MTV series. Season three opened to 8.4 million viewers then crept up to 8.9 million people watching on January 20. That episode outdid The Mentalist, The Big Bang Theory, and The Office in its target 18- to 49-year-old demographic the same night.

The series exists at the pinnacle of a genre that didn’t exist 20 years ago. Academics and media critics have yet to consider all the implications of putting strangers with larger than life personalities in a house together, turning a camera on them and forgetting to turn it off.

Arguments spring up when dynamic and diverse 20-somethings are thrown together a la The Real World , while verbal battles are mandatory to manage turbulent alliances on competitions like Survivor and Big Brother. Any drunken drama crops up as a symptom of the stress caused by the outrageous setting. But Jersey Shore lacks either trigger for antagonism and instead relies solely on the ever-flowing river of alcohol and the cast’s massive personalities to drive the plot. They never actually do anything, and their alleged cultural similarities of being Gen-Y Italian-Americans (or as they’re termed on the show guidos and guidettes) are what forms the show’s foundation. So what’s the pull?

Turning to their target audience may give a clue. Fans in college explain that the biggest draw of the show is the excessive conflict.

“Their fights are so funny, so over the top,” said Logan Graves, 20. “I like to watch just to point and laugh.”

Graves considers the show a “waste of humanity”, but uses the same label for most entertainment television. For him, the series is essentially the documentation of a paid party for crazy people.

But it’s that unreasonable drama that keeps viewers coming back. The genre has been popular for long enough now that the producers know what boosts ratings and what doesn’t, and how to manipulate the situation for their own agendas. It’s all in the editing. Fights and senseless conflicts pull numbers like nothing else, so the show is pared down to these raw elements.

“All reality television is manufactured,” said Laura Finmand, 20. “It’s pretty clear to me that there are producers and editors. I don’t buy that all of it is original. Real life is quite boring when it’s not poked at.”

True. Even the casual watcher will recognize that the show is not pure documentary and some would call it fake. But how fake? It is impossible to know how many producers are standing just off camera encouraging Snooki, Vinny and the rest to knock back just one more drink or to stand up and respond to an offhand comment made by a housemate. There’s nothing in the final cut to tell the viewer how much time elapses between scenes, or even if conversations are replayed in the original order. Somehow, the spectacle is still compelling, despite the blatant lack of transparency.

Finmand stumbled upon the show while looking for a bedtime story. She and her roommate have a habit of falling asleep to the sound of the television. One Wednesday night Jersey Shore was the only option, and their fascination grew from “Oh look, Jersey Shore is on,” to “Hey, is Jersey Shore on tonight?” to “The new episode comes out tomorrow!”

She says there’s a human element to the show that draws her in and keeps her coming back.

All too human.

Jackie Phillips, 20, doesn’t love the Jersey Shore. She calls it a waste of time. “I feel as though my IQ has dropped,” she said. “If there’s really people like that, I’d be concerned.”

The fist pumping lifestyle has accelerated to everyday culture, even permeating the minds of preteens. One young boy approached Phillips and her boyfriend as they left his work, asking if they planned to “smoosh” (a sexual hook-up) later that night. She was shocked, and found it hard to understand why anyone would want to mimic the lives and habits of people without accomplishments.

What’s really interesting is what happened when sources were faced with the show’s jargon. Everyone knew the definitions. Even a young woman who felt physically uncomfortable while watching her first episode knew that GTL was a to-do list (gym, tan, laundry) and that if a girl was DTF, an inquiring male could count on some smoosh-smoosh later that night.

Yet, the fact is the cast of Jersey Shore, and especially its creators and producers, have tapped into something real, something that connects with viewers, as proved by the record ratings. In keeping with those inflated numbers are the increasing paychecks per episode for the cast. They each pulled five grand per show in season one and doubled it to ten thousand dollars a pop for the second season. In round three, the more popular Snooki, Pauly D, JWOWW and Mike managed $30,000 for each episode, while the rest earned slightly less. That’s before their lucrative personalities tally the bankroll from their side projects. Pauly D gets offers of $40,000 a session for DJing and Snooki makes tens of thousands of dollars to simply show up on red carpets and at tanning salons. Three books have come out of the franchise, along with two spinoff shows set to air in 2012.

Hurricane Jersey will close in on Florence, Italy for season four and the town government has already issued a decree in an attempt to limit the shenanigans. The mayor has decided that the cast will not be filmed in bars or clubs that serve alcohol, while drinking in public, or in any manner that doesn’t serve to promote Italy and its culture. Perhaps these restrictions will give the cast a chance to redeem themselves in the eyes of scores of Italian-Americans who bemoan the destruction of their identity.

To an extent, the critics have a point, once the discussions move past the ongoing fakery. At least two cast members aren’t even Italian. Snooki is actually Chilean and Jenni “JWOWW” Farley claims a mixed heritage of Spanish and Irish. But the group identity is Italian-American, and these young people are not depicted as human beings growing into their civic or societal responsibilities. Instead, it’s as though they are guests at an all-expense paid house party and the weekly show is a highlight reel.

The hows and whys of some production choices are murky, but what audiences know for sure is that no one is making a show about college students going to class and preparing for careers. Jersey Shore captures a glimpse of what life might be like if students could, in the prime of their youth, throw out all responsibilities for one summer and do whatever they want.

A pair of 20 year old guys profess to be haters, but a quick chat proves that they are closeted fans. They try to brush it off, saying there’s nothing else on or that they watch it just for the laughs. Jay Zarate says he’d rather be watching infomercials.

But when a cable box is programmed to record every episode and the roomies are staying up 2 a.m. to just finish this one scene, someone’s a fan. No matter the intention, watching that often opens the mind to the messages from the show.

With these bros, it’s sinking in and the results are mixed. According to Andrew Meiswinkle, nothing annoys him more than individuals rising to fame on the coattails of their own celebrity. Somehow, he doesn’t place blame on the shoulders of SallyAnn Salsano, the show’s creator, but instead admires her success and intelligence.

“If [her] goal was money, then [she] is smart,” Meiswinkle explained. “[She] didn’t set out to make something intelligent.”

Graves was impressed with the work ethic of the four guys on the show.

“The work they get done; they are pulling so many girls,” said Graves. “Their goal is to get laid, and they are accomplishing that goal.”

To an extent, people that live together and party together are a kind of family. Several sources mentioned the episode when the girls hide cheese in Mike’s bed or when Snooki’s stuffed crocodile is hung outside by its snout. These pranks are common. Brothers and sisters have a tradition of waging petty wars on one another in that manner which will continue to the end of time. But when the fights get personal, and the fighters have have a few drinks, it gets ugly.

Ronnie and Sammi are the rollercoaster relationship of the set. Within a span of two or three episodes, the couple might have three fights and two break ups, with a short make up in between because they are horny. Ronnie’s battle cry of “Come at me, bro!” is now printed as a T-shirt motto. Romantic relations with outsiders aren’t any prettier. When the young woman Vinny brings home from the club decides that she doesn’t want to put out, he sends her off in a taxi and turns to Snooki instead. They end up on the back patio with Vinny holding the tiny girl up against the wall trying to persuade her to cuddle with him.

The group lives without consequences for actions that would probably get normal people evicted from their homes. Fights break out in the living room or on the back patio that would, in the real world, have neighbors calling the cops. Mike (or “The Situation,” if the moniker must be used) fell asleep in the dressing room of the Shore Store and no one noticed for hours. There may be downfalls, but the viewer doesn’t see them.

Instead, these college students who catch every episode are learning different lessons. The series exists as one voice in a larger machine teaching viewers that it’s okay to blow one aspect of life out of proportion while brushing another under the rug. There’s a subtle shift in priorities promoted by shows like this. When something so depraved and vapid ranks this level of attention and the accompanying payroll, people take notice. Maybe it’s not such a bad idea to hit the local bar crawl and get crazy, or gain a reputation for an obnoxious personality. Hey, these kids are only young once. Live it up. Repercussions and hangovers never make it to the primetime slot.

Viewers know there’s something amiss.

“It makes me upset. Why should eight terrible people get to live without any other worries but smoosh smoosh?” asked Finmand.

Because they were willing. Willing to take a vacation from their lives with an undetermined return date. Willing to have the minutia of their relationships filmed, edited, examined and broadcast. Willing to create facsimiles of themselves to be ridiculed and revered. Would you do it? Would you set aside your original plan and reduce yourself to a character?

“I’d throw all my morals out for millions of dollars. No question,” said Zarate.

Duly noted. But he hasn’t. He’s working on a degree. In the meantime, he can spend an hour a week watching what happens when someone else does.

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