Why Jersey Shore Deserves Reality Respect

It’s loud, obnoxious and un-PC. But for me Jersey Shore is one of the best things to happen to reality TV in a long, long time. Yep you got that – America’s most controversial twenty-somethings are out of control and out of their minds – and I love it!

Less than a year ago we were all blissfully unaware of the likes of The Situation, J Woww and Snooki. Fist pumping sounded like something from a triple XXX movie. And the Jersey shoreline seemed like a really nice place to go to for a summer break. But not anymore!

For MTV Jersey Shore has been nothing short of network salvation. It’s amazing how just one show can turn around the fortunes of a whole channel – but MTV is displaying a definite swagger now – and most crucially a clear direction. Shaken by the large staff layoffs of 2008 and a series of underperforming shows, MTV seemed creatively uncertain for a while there. On the one hand there was the glossiness of The Hills and The City – vapid teen fantasies of the rich and shameless, sharing primetime space with the gritty and bleak 16 and Pregnant and True Life strand. The net still had hits, but they were showing signs of age – My Super Sweet Sixteen for example – a great show that became a marketing tool for rappers and record executives to showcase their extravagance. But it felt like nothing on MTV had really broken out for a while. Not in the way The Osbournes or Beavis and Butthead or Jackass had become headlines making, cultural phenomenon.

And then came Jersey Shore – the little show that could! By the show’s finale at the end of January, Jersey was attracting over 4 ½ million viewers. On cable. To put that in perspective that’s more than Top Model and Vampire Diaries – the two highest rated shows on the CW. And more than acclaimed comedies like Parks and Recreation and Community on NBC. Wow!

And though the usual procession of uptight moral guardians love to attack the series, personally I’m thrilled. As a producer who’s worked for years in the reality field Jersey Shore is a breath of fresh air. Why – because it’s real. Really real.

Sure the Jersey Shore cast are drunk, vain, superficial hotheaded and spend more time picking hair products than they do sexual partners – but you know what – that’s how guys and girls in their teens and twenties act. They don’t act like the cast of The Hills – interning at Vogue, gossiping over cocktails and living jet set lifestyles. Paris Hilton is not everywoman in America today – and thank goodness for that! For most people under 30, life is about waking up on your sofa after a rough night feeling and looking like crap. Or making a fool of yourself on a drunken escapade. Or vowing never to drink again – until the next party.  Jersey Shore is un-airbrushed and unvarnished.

Plus it’s a very well cast show. People love to turn their noses up at the likes of Snooki, not realizing the work that goes into finding a character like that (most people in America have no idea generally of the work that goes into a really good reality show). Let me be clear – Snooki is reality TV gold. A short girl with massive breasts who drinks like a sailor and is completely uninhibited and sexually aggressive – she’s dream casting. But more crucially Snooki is likeable. She suffers from short girl syndrome, is aware that she’s not the prettiest girl on the block (that would be J-Woww) and who really, desperately wants to be liked. Lots of people come to reality TV auditions telling you how ‘wild and crazy’ they are – but for most it’s an act and under the surface there’s nothing especially interesting about them. But Snooki has layers. And that’s the key to great reality TV.

But what most pleases me about Jersey Shore is what it signals for TV in general – a hopeful return to real reality TV. When I watch Jersey it feels like a true documentary. Now we’re not talking Discovery Channel or National Geographic style verite here. Shore is not art. It’s disposable and trashy and I’d make no great artistic claims for it as a series. But in it’s own little way Shore is somewhat of a breakthrough.

Jersey Shore feels like a bunch of kids on Spring Break and the cameras just happened to be there. You get the sense that this is how these kids would act – whether they were followed by film crews or not. Now there may be manipulation behind the scenes – but if there is it’s well covered up. And nowadays, boy is that refreshing.

Until I came to America I’d never heard of the phrase ‘scripted reality’. I naively thoughts reality was real – as it largely is back in the UK (I’ll be posting more on this subject soon!). But since arriving in the States 5 years ago I’ve been amazed by just how fabricated and faked so much reality is. And it’s not just the obvious shows either – networks that love to trumpet how authentic they are are actually some of the worst offenders – sending their directors out into the field with thick pads of pre-scripted scenes to follow to the letter. And the thing is no-one’s fooled. Viewers can smell the fakeness a mile off.

At the extreme end of the scale is a show like The Hills – now entering it’s final season – perhaps due to the success of Jersey Shore and other grittier MTV shows like Teen Mom? The Hills has had a great long run on MTV and million of people love it – but personally I’ve never been able to get my head around the show. It’s like the Real Housewives franchise – I just don’t understand the appeal of a reality show that isn’t real. Call me old fashioned but if you’re going to script a docu-soap about spoiled teens in LA why not just call it a drama, hire actors and make it a soap opera?

What’s so pleasing about the success of Jersey Shore is that it feels as though viewers have likewise responded to the authenticity of the series. After shaky opening figures (and buckets of controversy over the show’s depiction of Italian American youngsters) the show became talked about TV and leapfrogged in the ratings week after week. That’s always a sign that a show is doing something right. Word of mouth is the one thing money can’t buy and I’d like to think a generation tired of faked TV got turned on to the show by just how unedited and unpredictable it was. Because the best thing about real reality TV – those true, unguarded, insane moments are better than anything you can script…

Of course the big question now for Jersey Shore is how it stays real now that it’s stars are household names across America. Will the cast start acting up for the cameras – or even worse – will the producers start scripting scenes to try and top the ‘highlights’ of season 1. We’ll find out when Jersey returns in the summer. But for now at least let’s have a little fist pump for the show’s success. Love em or loathe em – the Jersey Shore cast are who they are. Unashamed, unbowed – and unscripted.