Alas, we cannot all just get along. Thanks a lot, Jersey Shore.
Last week, on the same day that Barack Obama appeared on The View -- ostensibly, according to some commentators, to reassert some of the civility that Americans have hoped he'd restore to political discourse -- Jersey Shore launched what might have been the most uncivil hour of television since Norman Mailer sparred with Gore Vidal on The Dick Cavett Show in 1971. J-Woww tried to brawl with Angelina in a taxi. (She later vowed, "I'm putting Vaseline on my face, taking my earrings out, putting my hair up, and I'm beating the crap out of her.") Ronnie profanely told off Sammi "Sweetheart" in a bar. (Later that night, he called her "the worst thing you can call a girl.") And Nicole "Snooki" declared that a Savannah, Georgia, well-wisher "obviously f---- his sister for a living."
Of course, fighting and verbal gaffes are the hallmarks of any good (or great) MTV reality show -- indeed, the broadcast was peppered throughout with promos for the next episode of The Real World, which, we're promised, will feature an intra-roommate spat so heinous that the police are needed to settle it--but producers of the new Jersey Shore seem to have taken special care to sow the seeds of dissent in Miami.
The much-reviled Angelina, who lasted less than two episodes in the first season, returned to the fold in season two. Of the seven other castmembers, five have either slept with Angelina or intensely loathe her (or both), and previews for future episodes seem to hint that that number will climb to six before season's end. Unlike other reality show conflicts, in which it can sometimes take an entire half-episode for a castmember to decide that she hates her roommate, anti-Angelina fervor has been building among the others since her premature departure from the house last season. In other words, MTV deliberately stocked the Miami house with a pre-selected whipping boy (or girl, in this case). As if this gasoline-and-fire combo wasn't enough, producers also seem to have had no qualms about sticking Ronnie and Sammi -- fresh off their acrimonious break-up -- under the same roof. As Jerry Seinfeld might say, this is the equivalent of putting David Duke and Farrakhan together in the same room.
But of course, American civility is in an equally tawdry state of tatters. Somehow, Newt Gingrich willfully misinterprets the building of Córdoba House, a planned Muslim cultural center in Lower Manhattan, as an act of terrorism: "America is experiencing an Islamist cultural-political offensive designed to undermine and destroy our civilization. Sadly, too many of our elites are the willing apologists for those who would destroy them if they could." Sarah Palin sees a cheap shot at President Obama's virility as an effective political talking point. And then, of course, there's Mel Gibson.
Things have gotten so bad that New Jersey governor Chris Christie and New York governor David Paterson are actually arguing over whose state spawned the show. (Neither executive wants his state to bear responsibility.) Clyde Haberman, The Times's "NYC" columnist, presciently tied the governors' ridiculous Jersey Shore spat to a more significant aspect of the interstate rivalry, noting that, "Another point of contention is whose politicians are, pound for pound, more corrupt. New Jersey is usually presumed the champ. But New York is a worthy contender, and it now has Representative Charles B. Rangel to put it potentially right back in the game." When a race to the bottom becomes the stuff of satire, the cellar can't be too far away.
Most disturbing, though, is what Jersey Shore's choler says about a potential return to civility in America. The prognosis isn't good. No network is better than MTV at discerning and delivering what viewers want, and obviously, conflict translates into higher ratings. It's astonishing that in one minute, MTV can team up with Vagina Monologues author Eve Ensler to produce "I Am an Emotional Creature," a remarkably responsible and fresh look at adolescent and young-adult issues, and then in the next, celebrate and tacitly condone the rude, in-your-face ire of Jersey Shore. To borrow Simpsons character Helen Lovejoy's catchphrase, "Won't somebody please think of the children?"
The cartoonish, though still ferocious, rage exhibited in the first season of Jersey Shore has become, as many reality show memes are wont to do, a parody of itself. Only this time, it's not so funny, and its incivility virus threatens to weaken the next generation of American leaders.