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COMMENTARY

Unique attractions of the 'Jersey Shore'

As the MTV show's season ends, let's agree that this reality program had a special magic that shouldn't merely be replicated but should be moved on down the road.

January 21, 2010|By Jon Caramanica

Who hasn't "Jersey Shore" offended? Critics are inflamed, naturally, as are Italian American interest groups. Advertisers are concerned. Even Seaside Heights locals gripe about the unwanted attention the show has brought their vacation community.

And it's very likely that producers of other reality shows are furious too, kicking themselves for letting the strangers-in-a-house format, the granddaddy of the genre, go to waste for so many years.

"Jersey Shore," the first season of which comes to a close tonight (MTV, 10 o'clock), has been pilloried and dissected and scorned to the degree that hatred of the show has supplanted the actual show. Even the quick bleeding of the show's principals into pop culture -- getting poked on the late-night shows, giving Michael Cera a hair-gel-heavy blow-out, performing in a funnyordie.com sketch in which they pretend to be classically trained actors playing the role of guidos -- has smacked of the fetishistic. (Only the forthcoming porn knockoff, "Jersey Shore XXX: A Porn Parody," feels affectionate.)

But there's so much more to "Jersey Shore," which has restored the vitality to reality television in a way no show has accomplished since "Queer Eye for the Straight Guy," and is certainly MTV's greatest cultural phenomenon since "Jackass."

Its characters have genuine idiosyncrasies. It's endlessly quotable. And with its unwavering commitment to the ethic of partying, it's possibly the last vestige of reality television as it used to be: unself-conscious. Not that the Magic 7 -- Ronnie, Sammi, Pauly D, Snooki, J-WOWW, Vinny and the Situation -- aren't mindful of being filmed. But in spite of that, they persist with unpredictable behavior. (Angelina, the eighth cast member, who was evicted from the house early in the season, was probably the most aware of the fact that cameras were constantly rolling.)

They get unreasonably drunk. They get into fistfights. Then they have a group dinner night, cooked by the Situation. (You may wish to call him Mike, but the Situation is a sublime nickname, showing at least a glimmer of organic genius on his part.) Mostly, they're not trying to impress viewers, they're trying to impress one another, and maybe some attractive people on the boardwalk. The roommates fight, often, but the most poignant battles are over whether Ronnie and Sammi, who've become a couple, party enough with the rest of the house.

The loathing the show has engendered probably has a great deal to do with ethnic misunderstanding -- what functions as peacocking within the community documented on the show seems to others like outright buffoonery.

This is where "Jersey Shore" qualifies as an achievement. Most reality shows rely on familiar tropes for characters: the jock, the all-American girl, the nerd, the gay character, "the hot black guy," as someone on the current season of "The Real World" put it. But the guido -- or in other words, the young, style-obsessed blue-collar Italian American -- has barely been seen on television outside of "The Real Housewives of New Jersey." In this way, "Jersey Shore" comes off as much-needed social anthropology.

But there should be no sequel to "Jersey Shore," no attempt to recapture its magic. Now that the framework for representation has been set, the next group would only try to better it, bend it, create a masquerade. Inhabiting a pre-drawn character is a worse sort of exploitation than playing a sometimes-naive role.

Instead, the way to follow up "Jersey Shore" is to do similar shows in various cities around the country, in various subcultures -- farm kids in Iowa, goths in Louisville, punks in San Francisco, Dominican Americans in Upper Manhattan, second-generation Indian Americans in the Bay Area.

A second set of guidos in the same house would run the risk of self-parody. That said, if the rumors of a dating show for Snooki come true, consider it one more small step forward.

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