Once More Unto the Beach: The Final Season of Jersey Shore

There’s a certain ineffable but profound melancholy attendant with watching the sixth and final season of MTV’s Jersey Shore now, in 2013, in a post-Hurricane Sandy world. It’s a deep abiding sadness, difficult to pinpoint, but very powerful, suffusing the proceedings with a pathos that maybe is not totally earned or deserved, but is present nonetheless.

You can see it in the lingering helicopter shots of Seaside Heights’ iconic water tower, rollercoaster, and boardwalk that serve as the bumpers in and out of commercial breaks. You can see it in the empty drunken fist pumping revelry of endless Redbull and vodka soaked nights at the various night clubs. And you can see it a growing crack in the wall of genial obliviousness and utter lack of awareness—of themselves, of other people, of the world around them, of their own mortality— which previously surrounded the cast members, as they contemplate the end of their tenure at the Shore House, and what it all meant.

Daylight is starting to come through that crack. That they are, of course, thoroughly unaware of the very real disaster looming on the horizon, months off, doesn’t make their coming to terms with their own imminent demise (as a pop cultural entity) any less poignant.

Prior to this, Jersey Shore was all just so endearingly clownish, so ripe for mockery, such a great guilty pleasure. We gawked from our couches season after season, laughing to ourselves at these preening, loutish “Guidos” and “Guidettes”, as they would cavort and fight, celebrate and cry, fornicate and drink, stagger and stammer and fist pump their way through a summer vacation of depthless, inarticulate hedonism. Life was only ever an endless party of hitting the gym, hitting the tanning salon, hitting the laundromat (GTL baby! For life!), and then, of course, hitting the club, night after night.

It was all a circus, a great colossal epic joke that was the grand summa and omega of all the horrible reality shows about drunken 20 something idiots reeling through their myopic lives in front of the camera. It was the best and the worst of them all, and it was awesome to behold.

And now, all this, in retrospect, ironically or not, has been imbued, forever and permanently, with a deep thrumming river of sorrow coursing under and through it all, as we look back from amidst the wreckage. We witness here something that may never be seen again; a happier, more innocent time when there was a small, brief space where such unfettered primal inchoate joy and animalistic release could exist. 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?

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It may seem I’m being glib and perhaps borderline offensive trying to make sense of something like Hurricane Sandy—a massive human disaster which obviously dwarves the trite, inconsequential lives of a group of doltish, if lovable, reality TV stars by a significant magnitude—via what is undoubtedly one of the stupidest (and most stupidly entertaining) “reality” shows ever to grace the airwaves. Catastrophe of such awesome scope and scale razes us to the very foundations of our moral fiber, forcing us to reestablish ourselves in relation to the vastness of the planet’s power, throwing into grand, stark relief the realities of our tragic fragility and certain mortality.

It makes us realize what is fundamental, what the only important things are. It brings us face to face the really Big Questions about life, the world, the universe, God.

In its six season run, Jersey Shore has done just the opposite: cordoning off a corner of the world for its “children” to run wild in, without consequence or acknowledgment of anything beyond its borders, without any awareness of entropy and death. But for just this reason, and in just such a cosmic joke type juxtaposition, we have here, embodied in this one trivial bit of junk TV, a whole bundle of contradictory, dialectical material that might just be worthy of spiritual/philosophical reckoning, and…

Jeez, who am I kidding here? Maybe I’m just trying to justify my devotion to this stupid show, which, against my will, I find myself returning to again and again, with each new season, even though I know it’s bad for me, even though I know it’s terrible (and terribly fun!). I’m not saying that what I said all now, just above, is not true or accurate. There cannot not be a deeply felt poignancy dredged up from watching this show—and all it stands for and represents, both good and bad–and contrasting it with the images from Sandy’s aftermath; of homes and lives destroyed, of the boardwalk washed away into the sea, of families uprooted and rendered homeless.Jersey Shore has to give us something, some sort of answer.

And there is an answer! Because the salient point here — the one the show actually keeps explicitly hammering away at as it lurches drunkenly down the boardwalk one last time — is how, over three years and countless drunken nights and internecine squabbling, the Jersey Shore gang has forged itself into an unlikely, but strong, surrogate family. Despite the fabricated nature of their bond, despite the fact that a good number of their antics or verbal tiffs have been scripted, it’s impossible to watch this show, and have spent so long with it, and not see the very real affection amongst them. And perhaps it’s taken to this moment, with the clock winding down to their own inevitable Gotterdammerung — the breaking up of the Shore House — for them to realize it, and realize what they are losing and what they have gained, that this bond transcends all the stupidity and violent words and “hardship” they’ve endured.

Does any of it actually matter – like real world matter—compared to the very real destruction and displacement of the residents of Seaside Heights and all the other communities ravaged by Sandy up and down the Eastern Seaboard? Of course not. But there is a symbol of hope here, somewhere, a bastion to familial unity and strength in the face of overwhelming adversity, and I’ll be damned if anyone is going to convince me otherwise.

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So, then… well, back to the beach. Jersey Shore has never been much for establishing a compelling narrative. Any attempts in the past — such the seemingly endless romantic brawling of ill-fated lovers Ronnie and Sam The Situation (Mike Sorrentino) tormenting poor Snooki (Nicole Polizzi) about her previously slatternly behavior—have actually made the show less watchable. Well, except when Snooki started chucking wine bottles at The Situation’s head in Italy. That was pretty entertaining.

The show’s key strength has always been the mindless, interchangeable monotony of its summer fun, where nothing really ever seems to happen other than it always has – GTL, maybe cooking dinner, always hitting the club, sometimes scoring with chicks picked up from the club (for the guys), or drunkenly fighting with their boyfriends (for the girls). This has been the formula since episode one, and has pretty much served the show well right down to the present. No matter where they’ve been—hell, they even had a full season in a whole other country—it’s always been the same.

And while Season Six superficially presents the same when you first switch it on, there’s a new feeling, something new afoot and gestating, a disruption in the expected narrative. It’s change. But change for the better? Maybe.

First, and perhaps most significantly, chief party girl Snooki – who has spent the majority of the show’s run drunkenly dancing in clubs, falling down drunk while day drinking on the boardwalk, getting arrested while drunkenly falling face first up and down the beach, or drunkenly hooking up with an endless string of “juicehead Gorillas” (her term, not mine) – returns to the shore house seven months pregnant, sober and engaged. This is seismic enough to have nearly done the show in completely.

And then we have the return of The Situation, whose antagonistic descent into complete antisocial behavior over the previous three seasons had been fueled by a permanent diet of booze and painkillers. His participation was iffy, since he’d been hospitalized just prior to the beginning of shooting, but he emerges from rehab a sobered, and remorseful recovering addict, looking to make amends.

His arc of redemption, especially trying to reconcile with Snooki (who refuses to even speak to him or be in the same room with him as the season begins), forms the narrative core that binds all the cast members as they all make varied attempts – some consciously, some not — to mature beyond their permanent state of arrested adolescence. They know the end is nigh, and they need to have something to show for it all at the end, some growth, even if it’s difficult.

The Situation and Snooki’s own travails and strivings towards adulthood seem to be contagious, to some extent. JWoww’s (Jenni Farley) tumultuous relationship with her erstwhile boyfriend Roger goes through more growing pains but seems to emerge intact (where as previously she’d have just abruptly dumped the guy the minute things got hot). Ronnie and Sam seem finally to be getting to a place of mutual respect and stability (whereas previously their relationship veered into disturbingly violent alcohol fueled bouts of Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?– esque recriminations and accusations). And Vinnie seems to want to genuinely put his promiscuity behind him, declaring himself celibate for the summer, holding out for some mystery girl he’s courting back home.

Only poor Deena still falls prey to the general Jersey Shore malaise of day drinking and getting arrested, spending long nights feeling sorry for herself, weeping to everyone, wailing about going home, and then bouncing right back to start it all over again. I worry about Deena, and hope she can learn from her former drinking companion, Snooki, about how to grow up. (I leave out mention of DJ Pauly D / Paul DelVecchio if only because he’s always seemed to be the only mature one, and has pretty much been the only rock of stability from season to season).

When the end finally arrives, there are drinks and toasts and wistful reminiscences and boatloads of tears. It never seemed that they’d come a long way from that first summer, but they have. Their professions to each other of familial love feels genuine and, in an odd way, awe inspiring, given the emotional infantilism they’d all arrived with. As they hug each other one last time in front of the house, we realize, watching maybe with tears in our own eyes, that the joke was always on us, and the Jersey Shore kids were always alright… and that the Jersey shore itself will be alright to, will rebuild and reconvene and serve as a new home for all the joyful stupid revelry of a whole new gang of acolytes ready for GTL, fist pumping, drunken hookups and regretful mornings after. Long live the Shore!

A bevy of extras are spread out over the four disc set of Jersey Shore. The best is a 45-minute look back over the previous seasons, with cast members reminiscing about various hi- and lowlights. While not everyone gets a fair shake (The Situation seems to bear the brunt of the fellow housemates’ scorn, but deservedly), mostly their antics are painted in a good light in retrospect. Another feature focuses on their iconic if somewhat bizarre sartorial and grooming rituals, which undoubtedly will be of some academic value to future anthropologists. And another lengthy feature counts down a Top 25 list of their tribal patois and lexicography, including a bewildering array of acronyms that are extremely malleable and versatile.

The remainder of the features is an avalanche of deleted scenes, most of which are no different from any of the other scenes included in the regular episodes which, depending on your patience and tolerance for the show, is either a very good or very bad thing. And finally there are a clutch of “After Hours” specials that would air on MTV right after normal episodes, and which featured the cast in studio commenting on the action that just took place. These always had potential to be interesting in a post-modern meta sort of way (especially given how self-aware and sharp the cast members actually are, when they are not on the show itself), but would usually just devolve into more name calling across the studio. Opportunity missed. But otherwise, the generous portion of extras are certain to please fans of the show.