Two new reality shows debuted recently. On one, The Sing-Off, an a cappella competition, a barbershop quartet of middle-aged moms in spangled blazers sang a medley of Beach Boys songs. On the other, Jersey Shore, eight self-described Guidos and Guidettes descended on a beach house, where a girl named Snooki, who looks a bit like a hobbit Elvira, provided what one blogger called “the most NSFW subtitle in television history.” (It read, “F*** my f****** a******, right now.”) At first glance, these two shows seem like the antipodal extremes of a polarized culture. Look more closely, though, and you see that they’re essentially the exact same thing.
Let’s start with Jersey Shore, a bit of calculated outrageousness (Guidos in captivity!) that’s generated outrage. The whole point of a show like Jersey Shore is to provoke a horrified recoil coupled with an ironic embrace. Our reaction is further confused by the fact that its stars—Snooki, Pauly D, JWOWW, Mike “The Situation”—are so proudly complicit in their own ridicule. They seem to get the joke, even as they are the joke. (They just released an online video in which they pretend to be classical actors pretending to be Guidos.)
But the stars of Jersey Shore—who’ve guested on the Tonight Show and inspired an SNL spoof—were never Guidos so much as “Guidos.” All reality shows involve an element of play-acting, and no one understands this better than the people on the show, who are well-versed in the expectations of the genre. On The Real World, cast members have talked openly about which one is “the virgin” and which one is “the gay guy”—knowing full well they’ve been cast in a recurring story line, like replacement players in a long-running dinner-theater show. There’s no doubt Pauly D used a lot of hair gel even before the cameras found him, but laughing at him for packing a suitcase full of product is like laughing at a circus clown for wearing funny makeup on his face. He knows he has funny makeup on. He put it on for your amusement. And in the end, he’s the one getting paid.
Meanwhile, we the audience get to enjoy both the sizzle of mock edginess and the comfort of familiar melodrama. Because let’s face it: The complications among the housemates are right out of an Archie comic. Mike has a crush on Sammi, but she’s moony over Ronnie. JWOWW likes Pauly D but she’s scared of breaking her (offscreen) boyfriend’s heart. Snooki seems outrageous and repellent until we realize she’s spunky and adorable. If we need a nudge toward these warmhearted revelations, the show provides plenty of on-cue voice-overs and emotional musical swells. The only truly shocking moment—Snooki getting punched—was cut from the show.
Jersey Shore’s real dirty secret is that, behind all the strategically shredded T-shirts and blenders of Ron Ron Juice, it’s just as saccharine-sweet as, yes, The Sing-Off—a show that’s similarly calculated but far more clumsy. (If the barbershop moms could have worn Susan Boyle masks, they would have.) So our jeering of the Guidos isn’t a demonstration of our cruelest instincts; it’s the cover that allows us to indulge our sappiest desires. The Sing-Off tries to guess what we want (it’s American Idol meets Glee meets … Dancing With the Stars?). Jersey Shore knows what we want, and better yet, it knows we don’t want to admit it.
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