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In which I lose my mind and defend New Jersey

January 27, 2010

I kind of hate that I can’t escape pop culture.  Well, sometimes, otherwise I wouldn’t have as much to write about here.  Still, thanks to the internet and the media’s redefinition of the word “newsworthy” I’m at least dimly aware of most, if not all facets of current pop culture, whether I want to be or not.  This especially holds true of television.  I don’t watch a lot of television, and when I do it usually ends up a distant second to whatever else it is I’m doing at the time.  I don’t say that with any sort of pseudo-intellectual pride; quite the opposite, I simply don’t have the attention span required to follow the complicated plot arcs of such shows as Lost, Heroes and Two and a Half Men.  Nevertheless, somehow, despite never having watched a single episode of well over 90% of currently airing programs, I can give you at least a basic explanation of their plots.  I can name at least one character on most of them, perhaps even the actor who plays him or her.  I did not seek out any of this knowledge, mind you, it just entered my brain and became lodged there at some point, like a particularly annoying earworm.

This goes double for reality television.  As those of you who know me pretty well have noticed by now, I find reality television loathsome.  Not just some of it, all of it, even the relatively harmless shit like American Idol.  So it’s especially maddening that I know what a “Speidi” is, or that we’ll be hearing about Octomom and her children for the rest of our lives.  Again, I don’t purposefully make myself aware of this information, I stumble across it because in this 21st century Bizarro-Universe it’s treated as actual news.

Case in point: while perusing MSNBC.com a couple days ago to catch updates on what’s going on in the real world, I noticed that the fifth most prominent headline, above a human interest story about survivors of the Haitian earthquake, mind you, was ‘Jon Gosselin Attending Sundance.’  To put it in perspective, someone, perhaps more than one person, in charge of web content at MSNBC, had to rank, say, ten articles in order of importance, and a story about prolific father turned professional dickhead Jon Gosselin attending a film festival was deemed at least half as important as the top story, and twice as important as the bottom story.  I’m not sure what would be less essential news than ‘Jon Gosselin Attending Sundance,’ other than perhaps ‘Pope Catholic,’ but there you have it.  To quote John Cougar Mellencamp, aw, ain’t that America.

Lately stories about MTV’s reality series Jersey Shore are getting in the way of actual, valuable content. From what I gather, it’s a program about a group of young, allegedly attractive Italian-Americans who call themselves names like The Situation, Snooki, J-Woww, Bigg Dawg, Little P, Jizzhammer J, Assmaster General, etc., etc. I didn’t think that a nickname counted if you gave it to yourself, but maybe it’s something all the kids are doing these days, and by the way you can start calling me “Thundersnatch.” The ostensible stars are The Situation, whose sole redeeming quality appears to be his prominent abdominal muscles, and Snooki, who resembles a tarted up Cabbage Patch Kid and by all accounts is mentally retarded. The show follows their summer spent at a beach house in Seaside Heights, NJ, occupying most of the time with drinking, getting into fights and trolling nightclubs for casual sex. Even when I was in my early twenties this would have sounded like a depressing way to spend a summer, but what do I know, I was kind of a square. Oddly enough, for a show that everyone claims is appalling and unwatchable, it’s getting pretty good ratings, which of course means we can look forward to Jersey Shore 2: Back 2 da Beach and dating show spinoffs with titles like The Love Situation. Wow, your detached hipster irony sure taught MTV a lesson, didn’t it?

Though you couldn’t get me to watch an episode if you threatened to launch my cat into traffic, the idea of Jersey Shore fascinates me, mainly because MTV seems to be remaining coy on what exactly the point of it is. Is the joke on The Situation, Snooki, Nookie, Dingbat, Fartknocker and the rest of the bunch, because the show makes them look like a bunch of shaved gorillas? Or is it on the audience, for turning the people they’re being encouraged to mock into rich celebrities, fleeting celebrities, but bigger celebrities than most of us will ever be? Has reality television turned meta, where the audience that’s kept this shit alive for way too long now has been the dupe in a huge prank the whole time?

Here’s the thing about Jersey Shore: it’s a reality show based on a broad stereotype in a setting that doesn’t actually exist. Ergo, other than the fact that it doesn’t star actual actors, there’s nothing real about it, just like there’s never been anything “real” about any reality show, ever. Out of all the cast members, exactly one is from New Jersey, and yet it’s been generally accepted by the audience, many of whom have never set foot in the Garden State, that this is how typical young people in New Jersey act. That’s what the audience thinks is the point: “Ho ho ho, look at these crazy Jersey people, they’re so obnoxious!” Southern white trash is so passe, East Coast guido shitbags are where it’s at now.

Making fun of New Jersey is an ages old chestnut, I’ve often said myself that the jokes just write themselves. However, what people who aren’t from there get wrong about it is the biggest New Jersey joke of all. I should know, I’m from New Jersey, born and raised in and around Atlantic City, one of the truly weirdest places in the charted universe.  A few Jersey cliches are true. It does smell funny sometimes. Corruption is such an integral part of its government that the word should appear in Latin on the state seal. The auto insurance costs are ridiculous and governed by draconian rules–my guess is that the corrupt politicians are taking a cut somewhere. On the other hand, it does not resemble one giant, never ending episode of The Sopranos; in fact, watch the episode where Christopher and Paulie dump a Russian gangster’s body in the Pine Barrens, that’s closer to the real New Jersey. Not every surface is covered in a fine layer of toxic waste. The men don’t walk around in velour tracksuits, flashing pinkie rings and worshiping at the altar of St. Sinatra. The women don’t teeter around in miniskirts and hooker heels, skin tanned to within an inch of their lives, speaking in voices that make Fran Drescher sound like Kathleen Turner.

Those fabled “guidos” tend to be from New York City and Philadelphia, and spend their weekends and summers “down the shore,” being obnoxious and drawing negative attention to themselves, though of course their most grotesque qualities are emphasized for television, because if reality shows actually portrayed people acting decent and normal, it’d get kind of boring after a while. Seaside Heights isn’t the garish Sodom Jersey Shore shows it as being, it’s just an ordinary, unremarkable beach town that relies on tourist dollars before all but shutting down entirely after Labor Day. You know, when the guidos pack up their shit and go the hell home.

So you see, the more ignorant you are of places like New Jersey (or Atlanta, if you like shows like Real Housewives of Atlanta, or Brooklyn, if you like shows like The Real World: Brooklyn), the more entertaining you’ll find shows like Jersey Shore, especially if your enjoyment comes from feeling superior to the people on them. Despite my belief that they’re powered on pure evil, I also must give credit to reality TV producers for being incredibly smart. They know that far too many people will accept stereotypes without question, as long as they don’t resemble that stereotype. They know that our standards for entertainment are so low at this point that they can no longer be measured by current scientific methods. We may look pretty sad and stupid most of the time, but as long as we can look down on someone, anyone, even a bunch of useless bags of sand on a fake “real life” show, we feel a little better about ourselves. Reality television doesn’t capitalize and succeed through the ignorance of its participants, but through the people who watch them.

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One Comment leave one →
  1. Joyous permalink
    January 27, 2010 10:22 pm

    I actually kinda miss New Jersey.

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