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Jersey Shore Family Vacation Review
Jersey Shore started with a dumb, offensive premise: Eight over-tanned men and women of supposedly Italian heritage take over a New Jersey beachside pad, and foolishness ensues. MTV’s reality show played on crass stereotypes about modern Italian-Americans, presenting its cast members as self-proclaimed “guidos” and “guidettes” who are dedicated to bedazzled going-out shirts, the club, and most of all their “GTL” ritual (gym, tan, laundry—always in that order). Even before it premiered in 2009, it drew outcry, while others laughed at, not with, the cartoonish commercials.
But the show itself turned out to be something altogether different, hopeful, and highly influential. For one thing, as the Internet soon discovered, the stars’ connections to Italy or even Jersey were tenuous at best. Their embrace of cultural stereotypes was bizarrely, hilariously performative. They didn’t just brand themselves as guidos and guidettes; their world was populated with identities they seem to have invented, including “grenades,” “meatballs,” “juiceheads,” and “gorillas,” the latter two being Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi’s preferred type when she went searching for men on the beach.
Over its original six seasons, Jersey Shore did as much to dismantle stereotypes as reinforce them, pointing up how preposterous and mutable they really are. The extended joke of season four was that when the cast was moved to Florence, Italy, they had no idea how to interact with the national roots they so proudly owned. They missed the greasy pizza slices from back home.
They’re almost all back in Jersey Shore: Family Vacation, premiering tonight. That isn’t surprising, given that in its heyday the show was a ratings blockbuster for MTV. But what’s remarkable is how well it holds up. The new episodes, set in Miami Beach—which makes as much sense for the gang as anywhere dominated by bikinis and EDM—don’t even pretend to return Snooki, Jenni “JWoww” Farley, Michael “The Situation” Sorrentino, Paul “Pauly D” DelVecchio, Ronnie Ortiz-Magro, Vinny Guadagnino, and Deena Nicole Cortese to their former blissed-out, fist-pumping glory. They’ve gotten visibly older. Vinny jokes of Snooki’s plastic surgery that her face has a “price tag,” and she doesn’t deny it. Everyone mocks Vinny’s keto diet that has helped make him svelte.
And they reckon with the past. The Situation, who’s been sober for two years, faces tax evasion charges, to which he has pled guilty on camera. Now, at least, he acknowledges his wrongs. Snooki and JWoww tear up as they talk about how much they miss their kids, and feel guilty when they go out and get drunk to forget their responsibilities. The biggest drama of the first two episodes involves Snooki’s colossal meltdown over misplacing her wedding ring. (Hey, some things never change.) For anyone who doubted Jersey Shore’s sincerity, it’s clear these are real, flawed people, and surprisingly relatable.
The most shocking thing about Jersey Shore was that, after a while, its stars really did feel like a family.
That, far more than the colorful language and screaming matches, is what has always made Jersey Shore so enjoyable, and why it persists. In retrospect, producer SallyAnn Salsano’s vision for the show represented a sea change in reality TV when it was released almost a decade ago. Salsano ingeniously harked back to early days of MTV’s form-inventing Real World—the “true story” of strangers picked to live together who “stop being polite and start getting real”—and crossed it with high-concept pseudo-ethnography.
At the time, reality TV had become somehow dumber and more degrading, depending on heroes and villains and highly staged moments of embarrassment that are still prevalent on the Bachelor franchise. The Bachelor in Paradise spinoff simply pits its most reviled contestants against each other in exotic locales. It feeds off viewers’ worst impulses, asking them to condescend to its subjects and delight in their downfall.
The most shocking thing about Jersey Shore was that, after a while, its stars really did feel like a family, in the same way those bygone Real World casts did. They bickered and had messy sex with each other. But they also formed genuine bonds and convened for regular homemade dinners, where they put grievances aside. They always had each other’s backs in the most frightening scandals, as when Ronnie was charged with assault for a fight, or Snooki was punched in footage that was so unsettling and powerful that MTV decided to pull it. They could be cruel to each other, as when The Situation picked on Snooki for her weight, but they always apologized in the end and made amends. Rather than aim for humiliation, Jersey Shore asked its viewers to root for its stars even when they stumbled on the boardwalk while wasted.
That positive spirit, thanks to a massive cable audience, has spread elsewhere on reality TV. The resurgent genre has become more watchable than ever. Bravo’s Real Housewives behemoth has spawned endless iterations on a reliable formula. Its rich (or rich-ish) women in various metropolitan areas one-up each other’s conspicuous consumption, but they also cope with financial instability, mental illness, and the deaths of family members in frank ways. Even better is Salsano’s latest stunt, VH1’s Martha & Snoop’s Potluck Dinner Party. The homemaking goddess and Long Beach rapper are the unlikeliest couple on TV. They crack each other up and trade cooking advice, all while playfully deconstructing racial and ethnic stereotypes. Their real-life friendship is beautiful and infectious.
The cliché is that 90 percent of directing is casting. Nowhere is that truer than in reality TV, where the narrative can only be manipulated and edited so much before viewers wise up. Salsano’s eye for the right mix of talent in Jersey Shore has paid off enormously for her and her network, and made former nobodies into bankable brands with noble aspirations. Snooki and JWoww are on a mission to end mom-shaming. Vinny has capitalized on his fame to help others that are struggling with anxiety, which was the last thing from anyone’s mind when watching the first promos for Jersey Shore. Salsano wasn’t looking for the most outlandish guidos and guidettes she could find when putting together her bold new show. That would’ve been too easy. She was looking for real people who didn’t mind being silly and learning from their mistakes in public. She found them, and we can’t stop watching.