"Jersey Shore" recap: 4x1

Wherein the lovable mopes travel to Italy, go to a disco, yell a lot and ponder ill-advised hook-ups

By Drew Grant

Published August 5, 2011 12:30PM (EDT)

Editor's Note: This is the first in a series of "Jersey Shore" recaps by Drew Grant and Matt Zoller Seitz. Drew has been watching the series religiously since season one. Matt is a relative newbie. Complications ensue.

Matt: Okay, Drew, I'm a relative newbie -- watched a few episodes from other seasons and about about half of the last one -- so I need to be brought up to speed. What's the history between Deena and Pauly? The producers lingered over that final kiss on the dance floor like they were deconstructing the head shot in the Zapruder film.

Drew: I took a screenshot of that. There was something almost David Lynch-ian in their faces. And the tongues...

But their deal? They don't really have one. Deena is a relative newcomer to the show. She appeared last season to take the place of Angelina, who was on the first season and the second, but left both times because she was by far the worst of the bunch. Deena has wanted to feel included by the group since last season, and her first episode involved her pulling down her underwear and showing The Situation her vagina. It was very classy. So I think for her, hooking up with the guys is a way to cement her standing in the house.

As to, "Why Pauly?" Mike's already rebuffed her, Ronnie is an abusive, 'roiled up gorilla whose relationship with Sammi constantly borders on domestic violence, and Vinny...well, she could have gone with Vinny, but he has a little too much ironic ego sometimes. Pauly is the "safe" one, and the nicest.

Vinny's always kept himself out of the ancestral loop, save for one incident with Angelina (in between seasons), and early on with JWOWW. So this seems like something that was uncomfortably thrust on him.

Matt: Uncomfortably thrust on him by whom? Deena? Or the producers? You always have to wonder what sorts of suggestions are being whispered in the cast members' ears by people on the crew when they're between scenes.

Drew: That question is unanswerable. Why were the girls in the wrong airport? I doubt they bought their own tickets. We will never know how much of a role the producers have in these things. You have to take the show at face value.

Matt: The romantic tension between Mike and Snooki seems real, though, over and above whatever behind-the-scenes machinations are happening during production. This a totally inauthentic situation, no pun intended, so it's interesting whenever you see something that feels truly spontaneous and human, and not like the product of cast members hamming it up to get more face time on an episode.

I generally put reality series into three categories: contest shows, documentaries and zoo shows. A contest show is something like "The Amazing Race" or "Top Chef," where they're competing for a prize and everything is goal-directed. A documentary series is exactly what it sounds like; the producers are just putting cameras on a situation or event that might have existed anyway, and whatever happens is whatever happens, like on "Deadliest Catch."

Then you have the zoo shows like this one, which kind of remind me of a science fiction narrative where more highly evolved creatures capture humans and put them in a cage or a cell or in some contrived facsimile of "reality" to see how they react. There's always a bizarro aspect to a show like "Jersey Shore" or "Big Brother." Nobody really lives like this. And I don't just mean the lavish lifestyle, but the "reality" conceit of having supposedly independent, functioning adults all live together, right on top of each other, like they're in a college dorm. We're observing natural reactions in an unnatural context. Of course sometimes a show will cross genres; "Survivor," for instance, is both a contest show and a zoo show.

"Jersey Shore" is just a zoo show, though. That business in Season Two with the ice cream parlor -- I have a hard time believing any of those people would have gotten involved in anything like that if it hadn't been thrust on them by the show. It was like the producers were trying to create an "I Love Lucy" episode, but with 21st-century mopes.

And this Italy trip? Completely contrived and totally uncoupled from reality, so much so that it's got an almost science-fiction vibe, like that "Star Trek" episode "The Menagerie," or the scenes in "Slaughterhouse Five" where the Tralfamadorians put Billy Pigrim in a cell with porn star Montana Wildhack to see how humans mate. That gigantic suite they're staying in looks like a place where drug lords or CEOs would go on vacation. And I love the low-angle shots that accidentally reveal the lighting rigs in the ceiling that give the set that flat, all-over illumination that you'd see on a daytime talk show. It's lighting that that's meant to allow the producers to put the cameras anywhere and still get a decent shot. It must be blindingly bright in that room, like a supermarket times a hundred.

And yet despite that, there's something real in the way that Mike talks about Snooki and in the way Snooki talks about Mike, and in the way they react to each other. So much about the show is totally phony, but there's a core of reality to the people, even though they're all obviously playacting and putting on kind of guido minstrel show.

Drew: Well, for me, the thing that separates "Jersey Shore" from other unscripted series, in terms of "realness," is that it's always been as much about what happens off camera as what is shown on camera. So there's this element of "Oh, well I know what's going to happen, because Gawker reported Snooki's car crash months ago, when it happened." You know by the series premiere that a couple has broken up -- usually a cast member breaking up with a non-cast member -- so the stakes of their "relationship" don't seem that high.

But another element is that you find out during the actual run of the show that there were all these off-screen hookups we haven't heard about in the press, like Mike and Snooki having sex in Los Angeles, and Vinny having sex with one of Snooki's friends during a hiatus, and Sammi hooking up with an ex during a season break. That too, is very cleverly marketed. The producers know what to leak to the press before a season airs, and what not to.

Matt: See, I don't follow any of the off-screen action related to unscripted series, unless for some reason I stumble on it while scanning showbiz headlines for work. That you consider it part of the narrative -- something you have to be aware of to really get the show -- is interesting. The popularity of the show makes more sense now. So you're saying that even though you are deprived of the surprising, in-the-moment "what happened" by celebrity news coverage that follows the cast's every move, when the show actually airs, you still get to see how things happened. Is that the appeal? I mean, besides the mopes-on-parade aspect of the show, which I know is a huge part of the draw and has been the source of a lot of criticism in the past.

Drew: As to your point about "how" it happened, there's definitely a hype-building aspect. In the first season, Snooki got punched in the face by a teacher at a bar. And MTV really promoted that episode as "Watch Snooki get punched!" Then at the last second they decided not to air it, and had a title card that essentially said "We don't condone violence towards women." Then they leaked the clip online. It showed the aftermath of her getting hit, which was pretty gnarly. Since then, the show has made smarter decisions about what to promote in terms of the fighting: it's guys on guys, or girls on girls. One time Sammi punched Ronnie, but I don't think he ever hit her back.

Matt: I just read this article from the Daily Record about Season 5, which apparently just wrapped. Vinny says of the ethnic stereotype aspect, "At first people cursed at us, and now millions of people are following us around." And in the same piece, Ronnie says he that the cameramen become like "furniture" and you don't notice them after a while. It must be completely bizarre to be these people. I'm sure the money is nice, but what does it do to your head to be in this situation -- there's the word again, sorry Sitch! -- where your real personality has been re-created for a TV show, so that all people ever see is you partying and hooking up and acting like a buffoon? Do these people have goals? Interests beyond their friends? Plans for the future?

It must be like being the Beatles on tour in 1964, except they don't have to make any music, or really do anything but party and take the occasional meeting with an agent or manager. Just total madness. And the best way for them to maintain a profile, to stay in the news and create an image for themselves as a "star" of the show, is to get involved in some kind of unsavory or dumb-ass shenanigans.

That's probably why I resisted the series. Watching it depressed me. I felt like I was watching real people in predicaments that were going to cause them a lifetime of dysfunction, over and above whatever they would have experienced if they hadn't been on TV. These people have problems, but they aren't problems that the rest of us have. I mean, they have those problems, too, I am sure, but they also have this whole other set of problems that nobody in human history ever had prior to the invention of the so-called reality show. It's got to mess with your head, I would think.

Drew: About that: Did you watch those energy drink commercials they were showing between act breaks, the ones with Deena and Sammi?

Matt: Yeah!

Drew: Those two, along with Ronnie, are the only castmembers who haven't been able to cash in on their personalities from the show.

Matt: They seemed stiff and unnatural on the ads, like non-actors forcing themselves to act.

Drew: Vinny and Pauly D. make some money showing up at clubs, and Vinny has a clothing line. The Situation has become bigger than the show and is set to earn $5 million this year, I believe. Snooki and JWOWW have books out, clothing, Snooki is a spokesperson for pistachios. So those kids have a brand image, and their lives are more closely monitored in between seasons -- Snooki's love life, especially; guys seem to date her just to get into the spotlight, and one guy she was dating proposed to her on a magazine cover.

Matt: JWOWW's name saddens me, by the way. It's only uninteresting people who give themselves new names that they think sound exciting or heroic. I knew a guy with a totally nondescript last name and no personality who changed his last name to "Champion" because he thought it would change people's perception of him as a boring person. It didn't work.

Drew: JWOWW depresses you, but not "The Sitch"?

Matt: "The Sitch" is less depressing because it's not in all capitals.

Drew: Also, this might not be noticeable to someone who hasn't watched the show, but the girls have lost a bunch of weight.

Matt: Are you sure it hasn't just shifted upward to their racks?

Drew: Nope. JWOWW always had implants. And the appeal of Snooki was that she was like this chubby little hamster. But now the girls are all scarily thin. They've been "Hollywood-ified," which is somehow sadder than just being on "Jersey Shore" to begin with. This is a show that's always been very self-conscious about how lowbrow it was. Watch this video, which came out around the third episode of the first season.

Matt: What I want to know is, did the producers encourage the cast to go into this Italy trip completely ignorant of basic information that everyone needs to know when traveling? They don't think to change their money until they're overseas. They don't understand power converters. They seem to have no sense of place at all. Those shots of them reading maps were funny and sad. Like, "Where are we again"?

Nobody who takes a trip with his or her own money would be so blase and unprepared. Even the biggest dolt who ever walked would know, before going to Italy, that the currency there isn't pesos. Or is that more minstrel show stuff -- an example of the cast playing up the stereotype because the audience demands it?

Drew: Well, I do think that when you are a star, even a reality show star, the logistical details of travel are taken care of by other people. Does Jay-Z convert his money when he goes to Europe? Probably not. Someone does it for him. The humor is supposed to come from how ignorant they are, but I have a feeling that at certain point, they really are left to their own devices and genuinely have no idea what to do, which gives rise to those "Are you kidding me?" moments.

Matt: Those moments of helplessness on "Jersey Shore" are actually kind of funny, like a scene in a play about royalty where the king is left alone by his retinue and has no idea how to feed or dress himself.

Drew: Exactly. The Italy trip, I think, came out of listening to the fans. Or detractors. People were doubting the authenticity of the cast's guido pride, especially when it came out that Snooki and JWOWW aren't even Italian. So there was this idea of, "Well, wouldn't it be funny if they actually had to go to Italy, so that we can see how not-Italian they are?"

Matt: I just realized I characterized these supposedly "regular" people as royalty. That seems weird at first, but maybe it's not too far off the mark. They are our royalty now, celebrities. It doesn't matter what they're famous for, or whether they came from humble circumstances before they became famous, or what their personalities are like, or even if they are talented or smart or interesting. We're peasants watching strangers live the high life.

Drew: And burning their hair off in the process. If that kiss at the end between Deena and Pauly is "the high life," I'm happy being a peasant.

Drew Grant

Drew Grant is a staff writer for Salon. Follow her on Twitter at @videodrew.

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