The Hills defined the boom; Jersey Shore, the bust.

Also in Slate, Troy Patterson reviews the new season of Jersey Shore

Mike “The Situation” from Jersey Shore and Heidi Montag from The Hills

America’s first television stars emerged just after World War II. First among these were professional wrestlers, and greatest among them was Gorgeous George. A golden-tressed brutalizer, Gorgeous enjoyed mirrors and Chanel No. 5. He entered the ring to “Pomp and Circumstance,” bathed in purple light, a valet, Jeffries, carrying “GG” monogrammed towels on a silver tray. He was vain, absurd—and essential. Because, after 16 years of Depression and destruction, he showed Americans how to adjust to the postwar world, its eerily unprecedented prosperity. How to become newer, “better” people. He eased the transition from wartime savagery to peacetime consumerism by joining both in a performance piece for which George Raymond Wagner, his creator, was by 1949 making $70,000 a year.

American television has long stood in for American education. TV “shows” us how to live, how to survive in an office and a family, how to train our dogs and cook our food. How to successfully date, marry, and disarm nuclear devices. Cultural Gospel holds that Jersey Shore became a hit as a triumph of vulgarity. This is wrong. Jersey Shore’s success has rather to do with the offering of lessons in remedial humanity and is best understood in juxtaposition to the MTV franchise it eclipsed.

In times of prosperity we are encouraged to consume our way toward better selves, a process that helps fuel the prosperity already fueling it until, as we say, the bubble bursts. During the credit boom, The Hills, with its young, beautiful cast, informed national aspiration with images of glossy life in Los Angeles, the cradle of simulation. “I got an apartment with my good friend Heidi. I’m going to fashion school. And I scored an interview for a killer internship with Teen Vogue. This is my chance to make it all happen in the one city where they say dreams come true,” Lauren Conrad, Everygirl, told us before the pilot’s title-sequence even began. The camera then went close on her veal-calf face as she drove a German car toward Hollywood, the show’s theme song, Natasha Bedingfield’s “Unwritten,” evoking Fitzgerald: “Reaching for something in the distance, so close you almost taste it.”*

The song’s opening lyric is, “I am unwritten, can’t read my mind, I’m undefined” and might have better described the moment at hand and madness to come were it not edited out. As the aughts’ prosperity approached maximum falseness, The Hills evinced the dehumanizing effects of hyperstriving with a story line that veered toward blackmail and a sex tape. Characters grew increasingly paranoid, isolated, schizophrenically camera-conscious. By the time Lauren Conrad left the show, episode titles were evoking Nashian game-theory scenarios: “It’s On, Bitch,” “Mess With Me, I Mess With You,” and, most tenderly, “I’m Done With You.” Her farewell episode saw her at Hollywood’s Beso with on-off love Brody Jenner, Cold War Olympic spawn, noting a shared smallness of the ears. “You shouldn’t trust people with small ears,” said Conrad. “Why?” said Jenner. “Cause they lie a lot,” she told him, and when he asked whether that was really a saying, said she’d just made it up. Their romance had long since tired.

After the ‘08 crash, the empty promises of false prosperity became dark lessons in reality; The Hills no longer offered valuable lifestyle instruction but rather became a failed era’s gross artifact. A final season was shot without Conrad. In it, her great antagonist, Heidi Montag, nearly died after a plastic surgeon’s overhaul of her entire face. (“I had too much Demerol, like Michael Jackson did.”) Producers mined self-mutilation for pathetic tension, following Heidi home to Crested Butte, Colo., where her L.L. Bean-pretty mother cried when she walked in the door, then asked what she had done. What followed is readable as dark poetry of the American postwar experience:

I got a slight eyebrow lift
And that’s why I have these staples in my head
I had my nose redone
I had my own fat injected into my cheeks
I had my ears pinned back
I had injections in my lips
I had my chin shaved-down
I had my breasts redone
And my back shaped
And then I had a little bit
Of inner and outer lipo done
You have to realize that
I’ve been through so much pain.

The decreasingly young dreamer had ceased to resemble the viewer quite as fully as she had ceased to resemble herself. But most had long-since lost interest.

We were watching Jersey Shore, filled with the sort of people we’d deny ever knowing pre-Madoff (lifeworn bikini models, drivers of Clinton-era Hondas, Ronnie Magro) but couldn’t get enough of post-.The cast, having apparently sat out the prosperity, were powerfully able to show the rest of us how to go on living now that it was over. Critics called them shallow, vain, depraved. They were all these things. But it was their miraculously intact humanity that most affected us; “I am the Kim Kardashian of Staten Island, baby,” said Angelina Pivarnick, carrying trashbags as luggage, demonstrating self-esteem divorced from wealth; “I can never go out without my hair extensions,” said Sammi “Sweetheart” Giancola, the show’s great beauty, camera close on said hair-extensions, subverting the very artifice of glamour on which The Hills existed. She was adolescent, needy, took forever to get ready; “If you’re not a guido,” she warned, “You can get the fuck out of my face.” Lucky for Ronnie Magro, soon deeply in love. And for all of his Neanderthalisms, he experienced sex with Sammi not as some air-brushed cliché pushed from the offices of Teen Vogue or Vivid Video (have they yet merged?) but an awesome human wonder to be met with childlike awe. “Yeah,” he said of their consummation. “We smooshed.”

Beneath their tans and gel, the cast of Jersey Shore showed us how to be good to ourselves and one another. Mainly they fought for, not with each other; “We stood together as a family,” reflected DJ Pauly D in the finale, invoking civilization’s very core. And in watching we recovered something of the past. We left the wreckage of the false and paranoid era and like stroke victims relearned to be alive on the planet.

Those still paying attention to the post-plastic Heidi Montag, a plasma victim of the cathode cult founded by George Raymond Wagner 63 years ago, wondered why a pretty young girl would do that to herself. They shouldn’t have; Colorado’s prodigal daughter was maimed in the line of national duty, seeking a better self. Which is what the Jersey Shore cast have discovered, for better or worse. We loved them largely because they were unknown, but in loving them we made them known and so, potentially, unlovable. The culture eats its young, then goes to yoga. The second season premieres Thursday on MTV. It’s set in Miami, one of Latin America’s larger cities. It ought to be interesting to see them as celebrities, if only for a little while.Like Slate on  Facebook. Follow us on  Twitter.

Correction, July 29, 2010: This article originally misidentified Natasha Bedingfield as Natasha Bedingford. (Return to the corrected sentence.)