I watched the first season of MTV’s hit reality TV show Jersey Shore this weekend, digesting all nine episodes – each clocking in at about forty minutes – over about twelve hours. I was repulsed but fascinated, and I’ve spent a lot of time since trying to understand why a show in which drunken, orange skinned imbeciles repeatedly mate and/or fight with one another is such compelling viewing.
A lot of critics feel that Jersey Shore is the most horrible TV show of all time, and they have a strong case. But it’s also wildly popular, and as this column in the Wall Street Journal shows, many cultural commentators think there might be a deeper significance beneath the fake tans and endless tequila shots.
And there is, there really is. After some thought I’ve decided that Jersey Shore addresses the same theme as Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom (I really do think this). Both works convey the message that humans are social animals reliant on each other for one another’s happiness, and the current cultural fixation on individual freedom as an unqualified good leads to general misery and alienation.
I was gonna try to uppercut her, but at that point I had too many bouncers wrapped around me. I just wish for like three more seconds. I woulda done justice. – J-WOWW
The premise of Jersey Shore is that eight young, attractive (by the seriously warped standards of the show) people get to live in a house together at a wild beach resort and party all night every night. They’re free to do whatever they want, and for the show’s target audience this scenario represents heaven – but just as Franzen shows in Freedom, when everyone in a society is focused purely on indulging their own pleasures the results are not happiness, but rather frustration and anger and emotional breakdown, all of which is the norm on the Jersey Shore. It helps that the cast are so selfish and stupid and perpetually drunk they’re incapable of showing anyone else even the slightest courtesy. There’s never any room for debate or compromise – even the most minor disagreement instantly explodes into verbal or physical violence – and whenever they attack each other they’re inevitably screaming ‘I’m just trying to have fun.’
The ‘breakout’ stars of the show, who’ve gone on to achieve super-celebrity status are: Mike ‘The Situation’ Sorrentino, Nicole, ‘Snooki’ Polizzi and Paul ‘DJ Pauly D’ DelVecchio. The Situation and DJ Pauly D provide much of the comic relief. Every night they go out looking for babes to lure back to their hot tub – a rooftop jacuzzi teeming with venereal disease – to engage in some casual, consequence free-sex. Every night they meet some girls and bring them home, and every night things go horribly wrong, because even the skanks that would sleep with Pauly and the Sitch are people with their own lives and agendas, instead of the disposable sex objects the guys are looking for. So when Pauly D makes out with an Israeli girl she falls in love with him and stalks him for the rest of the season, ruining most of his subsequent dates. The Situation brings a girl back to his bed but he’s woken up by her friend banging on the front door, screaming that the girl’s family are frantically searching for her because she’s been missing for hours. For a show about alcohol fuelled orgies and casual sex, Jersey Shore is surprisingly conservative in tone, always showing the dire consequences of every thoughtless, drunken impulse.
Then there’s Snooki, a tiny woman with huge eyes, enormous breasts, a chocolate colored tan and a penchant for wearing lingerie in public. Snooki is desperate to meet the right guy and settle down, and the best way to find Mr Right, she reasons, is to spend every night drunkenly making out with random, heavily tattooed muscle-bound gorillas (she calls this technique ‘snooking for love’). This is not a successful approach to finding true romance and Snooki is genuinely heartbroken whenever it fails, which is every single night.
‘If I was just gonna get sloppy, I should have just pounded out what’s her name on Friday night.’ – Ronnie
A relationship forms between two cast members (Ronnie and Sammy) and they appear to have genuine feelings for each other. But since their lives are all about instant self-gratification, the second they’re apart they instantly start hitting on the nearest strangers (in one episode this happened literally one second after Ronnie went to the bathroom at a club. The show’s editors thoughtfully pause the footage so we can see that Ronnie was still in frame when Sammi gave her phone number to an off-duty cop). Since they actually care about each other this breaks the other person’s heart, and they always end every evening back home yelling at each other and crying, only to go and do the exact same thing the next night.
Instead of being a laid back libertine’s paradise the Jersey Shore house is an unhappy, tense environment prone to savage conflicts and sudden outbursts of violence. By the eighth episode the show needs to hire security guards to protect the cast members from one another.
‘I regret that I got caught. I don’t regret that I hit the kid, because he had it coming.’ – Ronnie.
The easiest way to defend Jersey Shore is to argue that it holds a mirror up to America. Consider how all of the cast members regard themselves as the most awesome people on the planet, the guys especially, on account of how deeply tanned and muscular they are. They treat everyone they meet with utter contempt but if anyone shows them the slightest disrespect they fly into a psychotic rage. The girls hurl fat jokes at almost every female to enter the house, but when someone teases Snooki about her weight she’s plunged into a suicidal depression. ‘There’s some things you never say to a girl,’ she sobs, even though she herself has said the same thing or worse many many times. There’s your rogue super-power writ very small.
The treatment of religion – while subtle – is also revealing. All of them are superficially Catholic – they wear crosses, they say grace before dinner. But they’re all creatures of base, carnal appetites without a flicker of morality. When DJ Pauly D’s Israeli stalker tells him they have to get married before they can have sex his expression is one of stupefied disgust, even though this is a central tenet of his faith and he has a gigantic crucifix tattooed on his back. For Pauly D Christianity is just another form of tribal identity; it has nothing to do with the way you treat others or live your life, and if that isn’t a metaphor for religion in contemporary America then what is?
There’s yet another level to Jersey Shore, best approached by describing the basic format of the show. Every day is the same: the cast wake up with hangovers, confront one another with the monstrous crimes they committed during the night and then scream and cry for a while. They devote the rest of the daylight hours to ‘GTL’. Gym. Tanning. Laundry. Night falls, they hit the cocktails and once they’re all blind drunk they stumble off to the clubs to hook up. Their favourite hangout is a place called Karma where they drunkenly grope strangers, get their phone numbers and make out with them, but just as frequently they storm out of the club in a rage, or they get thrown out, or they get into a fist-fight. The people they lure back to their house for sex are just as likely to attack one of the other cast members, or throw up everywhere and pass out as they are to engage in intercourse.
The parallels with Buddhist theology are obvious. The cast of Jersey Shore are bound to the wheel of suffering and rebirth by their base physical desires. Each day Snooki, The Situation, DJ Pauly D and the rest of the cast chase the fleeting pleasures of the material world, and at the end of it they are punished and rewarded by Karma but no matter the outcome they are doomed to endlessly repeat the same mistakes. In his famous Fire Sermon the Buddha likens our lives in the physical universe to a vast and terrible bonfire being consumed by the flames of time; Jersey Shore makes the same point by showing us poor, lonely Snooki drunkenly cart wheeling around nightclubs while wearing a short skirt and no underwear. The medium is different but the eternal message is the same.