I don't have a problem with Jersey Shore because it's degrading to Italian-Americans such as myself or because it misrepresents the Jersey Shore vacation environment (which I have escaped to every summer of my life and enjoy thoroughly). I do not possess an Italian-American persecution complex, but because Jersey Shore focuses on a group of young Italian-Americans summering in a locale that's near and dear to my heart, the show has caused my mind to crystallize the numerous problems I have with reality TV and American Anti-Intellectualism. I'll admit; I do possess a bit of an Intellectual persecution complex. I'm always eager to learn new things and from time to time I can't help but point out blatant ignorance, especially when it hits close to home.
Jersey Shore is different from fictional programs about Italian-Americans like The Sopranos, The Godfather, or GoodFellas (which is not entirely fictional, but lets just use that term to separate it from reality TV for the sake of this argument). This is where I take issue with the group UNICO since, in addition to Jersey Shore; they also called for the cancellation of The Sopranos. The difference between Jersey Shore and a show like The Sopranos is that as a reality show, Jersey Shore does not provide us with distance, reflection, commentary, or irony. Sure, some people may watch it ironically, but it's a more extreme irony that viewers tend to place on reality shows that they don't on fiction. Reality shows breed a condescending and antagonistic form of irony. When you watch reality TV, you get to point and say, "Ha, I'm better than those idiots." Whereas in a TV show like The Sopranos, or even The Office for that matter, we see ourselves reflected in the characters. We empathize with their shortcomings and so the irony is more self-deprecating and humbling. On Jersey Shore, the participants are objects and the ironic viewer is a detached voyeur. It's a distinct separation and the ironic viewer gets to be catty, gossipy, and judgmental towards the participants.
But perhaps even worse than the ironic viewer is the sincere viewer. Jersey Shore contains no built-in irony or distance for the sincere viewer. Shows like The Sopranos, The Godfather, and GoodFellas are able to reflect on modern American life and to use the Italian-American community as a focus for representation of our broader American society. The problem with Jersey Shore is that as a reality show, the world that the cast inhabits is the only reality that exists. There is no wider world in Jersey Shore. One of the great things about The Sopranos, for instance, was the interactions between the Italian-American main characters and supporting characters of other ethnicities such as Jews, Russians, African-Americans, Irish-Americans, and Latinos. There are also some very striking contrasts made between the Mafia-involved characters and the more assimilated law-abiding Italian-Americans like the Soprano's next-door neighbor, Dr. Cusamano, or Meadow Soprano's College Dean at Columbia, Dr. Ross (changed from Rossi at Ellis Island). Through these foils, the characters and the viewers are able to ponder the meaning of such universal human themes as "family," "business," "authenticity," "greed," and "revenge." These themes are present throughout much great American literature and drama. Another example of how great art places the main characters' world into a wider world can be seen in GoodFellas through the use of narration or the use of an outsider character like Karen, Henry Hill's wife, who is Jewish. One of my favorite sequences in the film is the part where she describes her and Henry's wedding, followed by Henry's arriving home late one night and getting yelled at by Karen's mother, and then Karen's visit to the beauty parlor where all of the other Mafia wives commiserate about their rough Mafia lives, finally leading Karen to proclaim to Henry: "I don't know if I can live like that!" Of course, Henry sweet-talks her and she succumbs to his charms and the glamor of the Mafia lifestyle. This sequence is a brilliant and involving portrait of anyone who has ever had to suppress their misgivings, compromise their convictions, and become something they swore they would never become in order to maintain a comfortable lifestyle.
GoodFellas also depicts that quintessential American yearning to "be somebody." At the end of the movie, when Henry has to go into witness protection, the issue that looms largest is not one of loyalty or betrayal but of loosing one's lifestyle -- a lifestyle where you are "somebody." Even though that lifestyle entails risking one's life and enduring lots of drama and conflict, Henry accepts his cost -- like many American's do -- so that he doesn't have to live the rest of his life "like a shnook" as he says at the end of the movie. But because GoodFellas acknowledges that a better lifestyle (at least better on the surface) comes with huge costs, it gets to the heart of a central American puzzlement: Is there dignity in accepting a simple, humble life, or must we always be pioneers and entrepreneurs striving for something bigger and better no matter how many "simple things" we have to give up?
The Godfather also contains many brilliant scenes that simultaneously depict enclosed-Mafia-world immersion and broader-American-society commentary. In the first Godfather film, when Don Corleone meets with the heads of the five families, he demonstrates a reluctance to begin selling narcotics, but he eventually relents under the conditions that drugs are not sold near schools and that drug activity remain confined to African-American neighborhoods. Don Corleone then goes on to make a racist comment. With that comment, we see how the Mafia at that time was hermetically-sealed in its own little bubble of societal ignorance. We also get a sense of how mainstream American society and American business treated minorities at that time in order to protect its own hermetically-sealed world. It shows how achieving prosperity sometimes entails significant social and moral costs, but it's a whole lot easier to accept those costs when you can dump them on some other group. This theme is summed-up in the second Godfather film, when Senator Geary attempts to blackmail Michael Corleone and Michael tells him that "We are both part of the same hypocrisy."
Good programming provides us with built-in commentary through nuanced connections between a subculture and our broader culture. Jersey Shore -- like so much reality television -- frustrates me because there is absolutely none of this commentary. That's what makes fictional programming and the more probing forms of non-fiction programming far superior as humanistic enterprises. Of course, this should be obvious to most people, but unfortunately it is not obvious to enough people.
The problem with reality television is that it takes its subjects way to seriously, especially those that don't deserve to be taken seriously. That's not to say that great fictional programming does not take its characters too seriously -- it simply allows for reflection. Fictional characters are just that -- characters -- whereas reality show casts are not characters, they are real people. The worst conceit of reality programming is the appearance of reflection that the show creates when it does those "talking head" confessional interviews with the cast members. These interviews act as a form of therapy -- a non-judgmental, feel-good validation of the B.S. Jersey Shore lifestyle. Viewers are called to empathize directly with the cast members and feel validated themselves -- absolved of the sins of inauthenticity, phoniness, and BS that we all fear we commit as we try to maintain our images and lifestyles. But there is rarely any actual reflection, "taking a step back", or criticizing.
MTV has been consistently serving up a diet of over-dramatic loudmouths who lead BS lifestyles, which it then validates -- from The Real World to My Super-Sweet Sixteen. If you watch it sincerely and empathetically, then you are credulous and simple-minded; if you watch it ironically, then you are condescending and antagonistic. Good programming integrates both irony and empathy. With bad reality TV like Jersey Shore, it is either one or the other. There is no need to make this false choice when we are living in a golden-age of television. Go watch something better, there's plenty of it.