Monday, December 7, 2009

On the Rapture of Jersey Shore

A commonly held belief states that the monotheistic God at the core of Christianity, Islam and Judaism are all the same deity, that Allah, Jehovah and Jesus, Sr. are just one dude who uses a number of noms de plume. I wonder if there is any greater proof of the validity of this belief than MTV's latest entry into the annals of television history: Jersey Shore. For Muslims, this is Allah's reward for observing the Eid al-Adha, the Feast of Sacrifice. For the Jews, it's a fitting Hanukkah present, as merely a single hour's worth of programming can entertain and baffle for at least eight nights (G-d was even so nice as to grace us with two episodes at once). And it is God's most loving Christmas gift since, well, Christ.

Jersey Shore represents MTV's attempt to create a large-scale proof of Schrödinger's Cat: by stuffing eight juiced, plastic stereotypes into a single gaudy home, can we determine that they'll have died from Axe body spray inhalation without opening the door?

It's also an interesting social experiment: had any other race or ethnicity (species may be a more appropriate term) been exclusively mined for the rough coating the diamonds, one might accuse MTV of racism and exploitation. But these people, oh these people. That they are white does not set the ethnicity back so much as jut every other race forward. With only a few seasons, Jersey Shore could at last destroy white supremacy, allowing for a racial equality that could lead to world peace.

For the Italian-Americans who comprise the cast of Jersey Shore not only fail to take offense at the slur "guido," they embrace its stereotypical tropes and posit the term as a lifestyle choice. I am reminded of John "King of the 'Burbs" Brown, semifinalist (he certainly won my heart) of VH1's similarly incisive look at the disintegration of the core human values of white people, The (White) Rapper Show, whose unfulfilled manta "Ghetto revival" swirls about the back of my throat to this day, a bitter aftertaste of empty dreams.

Jersey Shore's first two episodes announce the arrival of a deadly, otherworldly force, not unlike the clarion call preceding the opening of the Ark of the Covenant. Cameras document these eight spray-tanned, fake-breasted, 'roided-up freaks of nature as they look to this mystical house on the shore as the promised land, a land where the Rohypnol falls like rain. Their names flash upon the screen but, like a Robert Altman film, we do not immediately discern them in the foggy haze of all the hair gel, body sprays and sweat mist. They each detail their goals for the summer, though they might as well have been in the same room because everyone wants the same thing: to get drunk and laid.

Upon entering the house, the guidos come together, less a family than a herd. The building itself resembles a 21st century update of the House of Usher, its swanky but uncomfortable, "un-housebroken" look and feel an eerie reflection of its residents shiny vapidity. Appropriately, the house has no pool but does have a shallow, frothing jacuzzi. In another show, it would be a character unto itself, but true humans are overshadowed by the dramatis personae occupying this house. Reality shows tend to spin their wheels for a few weeks stripping the detritus before clear-cut crazies can be identified, but I'm already picking favorites.

Meet Jenni. Sorry, JWOWW. Sadly, she did not earn her nickname through being a dynamic World of Warcraft player, but that's neither here nor there. When she steps out of her car the first time, young Vinny (sadly present only to bitch and pout [and get pinkeye] in these first episodes) is so terrified by this subtly racist, animated Barbie doll that he runs back in the house to claim the only single bed to avoid her. JWOWW casually mentions that she has a boyfriend but that she will not restrict herself when she reaches the Mecca of douchebags, because what happens in Jersey is broadcast to millions of home viewers shall be quickly forgotten as her brain is half silicone STAYS in Jersey. Jersey Shore breaks the mold for reality casting, but if we use now-outdated forms of typecasting, JWOWW plays into the role of resident Narcissus, an admittedly redundant and meaningless classification when faced with a cast so self-absorbed that one cops to owning his own tanning booth. She may also be onto the Next Big Thing when she approaches the camera in the second episode and defiantly proclaims, "I feel like eating ham and drinking water" to fight the temptation of cheating on her boyfriend. The message may seem cryptic, but it's one of the purest expressions of hope and dedication I've ever heard, a statement equal to the entire momentum of the Obama candidacy in its refusal to be daunted and its willingness to dream.

Nicole (a.k.a. Snooki) is clearly the drunken hotmess. She drinks 'till she passes out on the first night and worries that she's given the wrong impression, at which point she decides to pout about going home. A prolonged segment involves her stumbling around the empty house -- the rest hit the baywalk of Seaside Heights like Viking raiders -- marveling at a quacking duck toy and consistently failing to realize that it is a novelty phone, even after she answers. The length that the show's producers allotted to this scene, combined with its unchanging nature, reminds me of the work of long-take maestro Bela Tarr, albeit if he suffered some sort of stroke. To my relief, her desire to leave the show was merely the perfunctory Dramatic Moment that must occur in all first episodes of reality programs, and she's in for the long haul. Her commitment pays off immediately, as she brings home a "friend" from a party so wasted he cannot watch the sunset, no...rise with her; when he vomits (set to bellyachingly hysterical metal), she comments in a voiceover that this random dope isn't paying attention to her.

And now I come to Mike, my favorite, a term I use with the caution of a parent describing a child, more so, even -- every parent has a favorite child; if they assured you they don't, it isn't you. Mike takes to calling himself "The Situation," a reference to his abs that allows him to go a-wooing merely by asking women "Do you love the Situation?" and lifting his shirt as he raises his voice to indicate that his sentence is a question. I am fully aware of reality television editing techniques (for a fantastic crash course in the subject, check out this amusing but ingenious segment by good ol' Charlie Brooker), but even if producers cut out all the failed attempts, Mike's strategy is astonishingly, tragically effective. Also, in certain lights, he looks somewhat like a beardless Mac from It's Always Sunny in Philadelphia (though not as much as DJ Pauly D looks like Gael Garcia Bernal if his head were half-crushed in a vice).

His abs meet their match, however, in the jubilant fist-pumping of Ronnie, the first test-tube baby formed entirely of human growth hormones. To take from The Dark Knight, the resultant clash of testosterone is what happens when an unstoppable force meets an immovable object. At the center stands Sammi "Sweetheart," the most human of the group, an qualifier so relative I expect to see a bonus Physics credit when I check my grades after finals. Ronnie and Mike's pissing contest establishes an epic struggle in the name of love (or at least love-making), the likes of which hasn't been seen on television since the subtle play for Dawn's hand in the original Office. In one stunning moment, Ronnie tells Mike with Machiavellian menace that his "hands are gonna be in your Kool-Aid tonight," a borderline Shakespearean moment recalling Iago, the Bard's most sinister villain.

When Bruce Springsteen released his first album back in 1973, he set in motion a career that would chart the totality of the American way of life through the filter of his life on the Jersey shore. Had he started today, however, I imagine that he would not even have bothered. Springsteen is the poet laureate of the "average Joe," but a picture is worth a thousand words, and Jersey Shore allows America 24 glimpses into its future per second.

Jersey Shore is a revelation, every bit as searing as The Wire in its exposé of a subculture we all vaguely know and fear but do not understand. Where The Wire laid bare the sociopolitical constraints affecting the citizens and the officials of our decaying urban centers, though, Jersey Shore further enshrouds the enigma of the guido's life in an elliptical fog. Watching these people makes all other actions, including breathing, seem secondary. We could solve the global energy crisis just by running sponges through their hair. We could unite the Middle East in joint hatred of these buffoons, though none of us would come any closer to understanding these eight people and what they represent. But one image sticks in my mind, perhaps the ultimate summation of the "guido" lifestyle so proudly displayed by these characters: the cast assembles at the dinner table to eat some sub-Italian cuisine* (there is a shitting bottle of ketchup, for God's sake), a table littered with bottled soda drinks and crap food, its center adorned by a propped-up copy of the Holy Bible. Somewhere in New York, Martin Scorsese is retiring.

Fin d'épisode. Fin de télévision.

*Speaking of sub-Italian cuisine, let us for a moment contemplate the grand cosmic irony of Domino's Pizza, who has done its best to ruin a classic staple of Italian food, pulling its ads from the show because they felt it denigrated Italians. You and Olive Garden should be washing this show's feet, Domino's.

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