The cast of "Jersey Shore," from left, Paul "DJ Pauly D"… (Ian Spanier Photography )
Like a tan growing pale, "Jersey Shore" is fading into the TV sunset. Thursday marks the beginning of its sixth season — its last.
It began as just another low-budget MTV reality show, with lower expectations, that would chronicle the fist-pumping antics of its ultra-bronzed, ultra-average stars who would be cooped up in a house in Seaside Heights, N.J. Then the series aired in December 2009, and it quickly and curiously morphed into a surprisingly potent pop force that made "Snooki" a household name, turned an unknown cast into late-night punch lines and, ultimately, its title became shorthand for the further dumbing down of American culture.
"Let's just keep it real, we've made a lasting effect," said Mike "The Situation" Sorrentino during a phone interview. "It will take a number of years to try to forget what we've done. We changed the way people view reality TV. We helped changed how reality TV is done."
QUIZ: Test your 'Jersey Shore' vocabulary
Sorrentino, for once, isn't exaggerating too much. The program, originally planned as a competition-based series intended for VH1, let viewers peep inside the "guido youth" subculture whose hallmarks were late-night boozing and grinding, while sporting perfectly coiffed hair and extremely tan skin.
The show's novelty and buzz opened the floodgates for imitators across dozens of niche networks desperate to stand out amid the cacophony of reality television. Bravo's "Shahs of Sunset," Animal Planet's "Hillbilly Handfishin'" and even TLC's "Here Comes Honey Boo Boo" all owe a tip of the hat to the "Jersey Shore" kids.
"It proved that you can still surprise this late in the reality game," said Andy Dehnart, editor of the reality TV news and review site RealityBlurred.com. "It made it interesting to learn about people whose lives are different than our own and made networks less afraid to go outside the box."
Along with a pair of gritty reality shows, "16 and Pregnant" and "Teen Mom," the "Jersey Shore" gamble boosted MTV's ratings at a critical time and helped it find a new pop-culture relevance. The trio of unlikely hits also enabled the network to take on a new identity as it wrapped up an era of celebrating the wealth and excess of pretty people in such shows as "The Hills" and "My Super Sweet 16."
The first season of "Jersey Shore" averaged 2.7 million viewers and the show would reach 8 million viewers in its third cycle, according to ratings firm Nielsen. Last season it dropped to a still-impressive 5.8 million viewers, and once again ranked as the No. 1 cable series among the 12-34 demographic, as it had been for the previous four runs.
" 'Jersey Shore' breathed life into the channel at a time when we really needed it," said Jackie French, MTV's senior vice president of series development and the driving force behind the show "It was bigger than anyone of us ever imagined. It brought a lot of new viewers to the channel. There are people who haven't watched MTV in a long time but they wanted to watch 'Jersey Shore' because they wanted to be in the conversation Friday morning."
In time, the "Jersey Shore" conversation broadened the English language as well. New words and terms — GTL (gym, tan, laundry), grenades (unattractive females) and smushing (sex) — became part of the youth lexicon.
Fascination for all things Jersey reached beyond American shores, too, as the show aired in nearly170 territories. It's been one of the top performing series across the network's international markets, including Australia, Denmark, Singapore and Sweden. (The show even inspired two international versions, "Geordie Shore" in the U.K. and "Gandia Shore" in Spain.)
"I think sometimes you just have to trust your gut as a network and put stuff on the air and really give it a go," said "Jersey Shore" executive producer SallyAnn Salsano. "Because sometimes things that feel out of left field or a little bit odd is actually your best bet. Look how far this thing went. It's insane."
Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi, who said she would film herself and post the videos on YouTube in her pre-"Jersey Shore" days, attributes the show's success to a carefree mentality — which, in her case, included panty-less outings at clubs and sloppy drunken binges.
"We didn't care," said Polizzi, who recently graced the cover of People magazine with her newborn baby. "We did us. People weren't used to that and that's what helped make it a big deal."
The show, though, wasn't wholeheartedly embraced by everyone. Italian American anti-defamation groups lambasted "Jersey Shore" for playing on the worst ethnic stereotypes — a national Italian American organization, UNICO, called it "trash television." When the show jet-setted to Italy in its fourth season, the cast members were met with outrage by some locals. And a few sponsors, including Domino's Pizza, pulled ads after the show's premiere.