Reality television is full of shows about young people with well-developed pectorals and underdeveloped intellects. Heck, sometimes that feels like the sum total of reality television. So why did Jersey Shore, MTV’s smash hit about self-styled “guidos” and “guidettes” living the high/low life at a beach house one crazy summer become such an instant pop-culture phenomenon? Why did we make a ridiculous creature who calls himself “The Situation” and considers his stomach muscles the eighth wonder of the world rich and famous? Why did Jersey Shore connect with the zeitgeist like few reality shows before it? The show has value as an anthropological examination of a certain breed of oversexed, over-tanned, vacuous East Coast hedonist, but the truth is, audiences loved laughing at the foibles of twentysomethings unencumbered by self-consciousness or dignity. Jersey Shore offered fans an opportunity both to laugh at the idiocy and macho self-delusion of its cast members, and live vicariously through the sexed-up misadventures of Italian-American cartoons who are all impulse and appetite: for sex, for booze, for power, and for mindless drunken fights on the boardwalk late at night.
Casting played a huge role in the show’s success. Jersey Shore picked the perfect blend of flashy, attention-seeking exhibitionists. Mike “The Situation” Sorrentino—a would-be alpha male who fancies himself a studly womanizer, yet devotes much of his time and energy to cooking, cleaning, and obsessing over his appearance in a manner that’s more metrosexual than macho—quickly emerged as the breakout star. He was ably assisted in his sketchy endeavors by dim-witted sidekick/wingman Pauly “DJ Pauly D” DelVecchio. Rounding out the male cast is Ronnie, a brute with the physique and anger-management issues of the Incredible Hulk, and Vinnie, an affable audience surrogate who’s alone in realizing the ridiculousness of everyone and everything around him.
The women are just as outsized and outrageous. The first to leave the house is Angelina “Jolie” Pivarnik, who famously justifies her refusal to work at the T-shirt shop that employs her housemates because as a bartender, she’s accustomed to doing “great things.” Angelina’s departure leaves a vacuum filled by Jenni “JWoww” Farley, a self-professed “praying mantis” who seduces and destroys men foolish enough to think they could tame her, and Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi, a pint-sized sad-sack who seems convinced she can find the Guido prince of her dreams by making out with a bunch of random dudes. Also on hand for the summer debauchery: Sammi “Sweetheart” Giancola, a guidette whose “romance” with Ronnie provided a revelatory glimpse into the mating dance of the angry and inarticulate.
From the very beginning, there’s been something disquieting and exploitative about Jersey Shore, even though the cast is giddily complicit in its own exploitation. Even in our reality-crazed world, few people attain overnight stardom of a sort for spending a summer partying and pursuing one-night stands. The cast’s identification as “Guidos” and “Guidettes” gave audiences more permission to laugh at stereotypes than is merited, as Jersey Shore is pure Italian-American minstrelsy. Yet in spite of all its disturbing undercurrents—or perhaps because of them—Jersey Shore is enormous fun. It’s a comic-book take on the rituals of preening peacocks, male and female, whose days revolve around what has famously become known as “GTL”—gym, tanning, and laundry. The cast has proved to be an endless font of hilarious sound bites and indelible moments, like when Sorrentino gets revenge on Giancola for not washing dishes with the fussily issued directive, “You are excluded from surf-and-turf night. You are excluded from ravioli night. You are excluded from chicken-cutlet night.” Jersey Shore gleans guilty, guilty laughs out of the tragic gulf between its cast’s lofty perception of itself and the much sadder reality. The uncensored first-season DVD set paints a much darker, much creepier portrait of young Italian-Americans in heat than the cleaned-up, polished version found on MTV. In the uncensored DVD, Sorrentino’s relentless quest for interchangeable flesh comes off as less goofy, and more unnerving and parasitic. And the presence of wall-to-wall obscenity and queasy psychodrama lends the show a distinct Girls Gone Wild-meets-John Cassavetes vibe. Without censorship or careful editing, the loveable jerks here seem a lot less loveable. Though it’s still a hypnotic, eminently re-watchable train wreck, the uncensored first season of Jersey Shore adds a little more guilt to its guilty-pleasure status.
Key features: A slew of deleted scenes; cocky, deluded commentaries from Snooki, The Situation, and DJ Pauly D; and a cute clip of Michael Cera getting a Jersey Shore makeover.