MTV’s reality series Jersey Shore premiered at the tail end of 2009 as a piece of pop anthropology, populist and popular. Cast members Snooki, Sammi, Pauly, Vinny, Ronnie, Jenni, and Mike (and occasional cast member Deena, whose presence in this parenthetical is meant as a burn) were emissaries of a distinct subculture who nonetheless spoke the universal language of reality TV. Self-proclaimed, unapologetic “guidos” with distinct standards of beauty, behavior, and mating, the Italian American and Italian American–adjacent cast intrinsically understood how to be larger than life—unabashed about doing any and everything on camera, ever mindful of the imperative to entertain.
On screen they tanned, fist-bumped, got wasted, fornicated, fought, schemed, clogged toilets, and narrated it all with energetic slang that reflected their self-awareness of both the inherent comedy of the GTL lifestyle and the demands of a medium that abhors quiet. The cast was never quiet. For this professionalism they were rewarded with fame, becoming tabloid regulars, which only inspired them to play themselves even more to the hilt. They seemed to thrill to the spectacle of themselves, mixing egoism with a heady dose of self-love—for each other, their towering hairdos, their burnt-umber complexions. This self-regard kept the show from feeling exploitative, even as its members got blackout drunk night after night. The shtick got old anyway, as shticks do, and at the very end of 2012, the show was canceled after six seasons.
A little more than five years later, the cast members and MTV could presumably stand to financially benefit from a new round of attention—or that’s what I presume anyway about the existence, starting Thursday, of Jersey Shore Family Vacation. The cast members are, as ever, down to give it their all. Despite having undergone some serious material changes in their circumstances—partnership, children, sobriety, fame—they know what is expected of them and descend upon Miami to re-create the glory days of their reality TV show’s youth.
In its new incarnation, the show is still about a subculture, but that subculture has changed. It’s now a study of the strange group of individuals known as reality TV stars, a cohort that can be seen across television in reunion specials, all-star seasons, Bachelor spinoffs, and, perhaps most purely, MTV’s never-ending The Challenge. This subculture, like the Jersey Shore members’ original one, puts a premium on family, by which I mean the arbitrary bonds that tie you forever to people not of your choosing whose material well-being may have a salubrious effect on your own. The Jersey Shore’s cast members fortunes are linked, whether they like it or not, and it is part of their general good humor that they mostly like it, or convincingly pretend to.
“We all grew up … sort of,” JWoww explains. In the five years since the show ended, Snooki and JWoww have had two children apiece and a bit of plastic surgery, which, in keeping with the warts-and-all nature of Jersey Shore is discussed extensively, openly, cattily (by the men), and even informatively: Yes, Jenni did breastfeed with an implant after her first child. Deena is married, her father has recently died, and she has transitioned to wine, which she and Snooki congratulate each other on drinking over enormous pours. Happy-go-lucky Pauly travels the world DJing, his flat iron and gel-intensive hairstyle unchanged. The odious Ronnie is about to be a father but otherwise unchanged. And last, but certainly not least, is Mike, aka the Situation, who has gotten sober and, as the show begins, is embroiled in a serious federal court case about his tax evasion. Not present: Sammi, who has made the sage decision not to return to the house because she does not want to share it with Ron, her Stegosauran and petty ex, and who is mercilessly roasted by her former roommates as a result.
Upon their arrival in Miami, the gang heads out to a club to see if they still have it. They do. They take to the dance floor, joking about how they are fist-bumping even though it’s passé—“I think nobody else fist bumps, but we still do”—grinding, fighting for no reason, and then getting too drunk to be there. On the way out of the club, Snooki collapses on the curb before being hustled into a cab, just as she did in Jersey Shore’s first episode. They go home, to their expensive, corny Miami mansion, where the power is out, and order some pizzas. Vinny, the sanest, mildest cast member, is on something like the Atkins diet, and he begins drunkenly picking the cheese and pepperoni off, like an agile anteater. It is mesmerizing. His roommates look on aghast. They are Italian. They eat carbs. In the morning, Snooki finds an uneaten pepperoni pie sitting on a lounge chair, yelps in delight, and takes the whole pizza to bed with her.
Along with Mike, Snooki was the series’ breakout star, and she understands her role perfectly: the meatball Lucille Ball. There are a number of set pieces, including Snooki’s wrestling with a 200-pound animatronic body (it’s supposed to be Sammi; long story). It feels like a scene from a movie sequel, the ones that are supposed to be like a scene from the original but slightly different; Snooki doing goofy physical comedy, take 25. But that just shows what a consummate professional she is. Over a boozy brunch she breaks down in tears, because her son’s favorite song comes on, cries because she misses her kids, and then emphatically rallies, getting wasted in the daylight. A job is a job, and hers requires shots, bonhomie, and a willingness to say whatever pops into her head.
“We’re not wiser mature people, we’re still the same show we were five years ago,” Pauly says, and he has a point. But if the new season of Jersey Shore has any kind of real narrative throughline, it is one about maturity, and what it looks like in such heightened circumstances. Certain members of the group are self-aware enough to recognize they are not seen, by anyone, as emblems of adulthood, but that does not mean that they are not, in their way, making adult choices. Jenni explains that she’s happy to be there, but also “I get the mom guilt. How dare you drink and go out and go to the club, because moms aren’t supposed to do that.” (What about moms whose job is to go out and drink at the club?) Then there is the Situation, who is two years sober. “I don’t lie, I don’t cheat, I don’t steal, I don’t drink, I don’t drug,” Mike speed talks early in the first episode, by all accounts a changed man. When he shows up in Miami, a little late, and meets up with the gang on a daytime bender, he looks genuinely overwhelmed. “I’m in recovery, and I’m on vacation with a bunch of savages,” he says. “The chance of survival is very slim. … What did I get myself into?” The answer, of course, is a paycheck—but at what cost?
My favorite exchange about maturity is a little one involving hipster accessories. As the gang gets gussied up for their first night in Miami, Jenni puts on a pair of glasses: They’re big, with silver frames, serial-killer stylish. Insofar as these glasses can look good on someone, they look great on her, but they belong to another, more polished aesthetic, and Jenni’s compatriots are not having it. Snooki and Ronnie do a near spit-take upon seeing them. “You look like a grandma,” Snooki says. “We’re fittin’ to get turnt up!” Pauly narrates. “Except JWoww.” Her friends see the shades for what they are, an attempt to upgrade her look and move beyond her past, but there’s no getting out. Jenni eventually does wear a pair of glasses to the club, but they’re simpler, with square black frames, a kind of compromise between who she is and who the show requires her to be. She may have gotten older, but Jersey Shore will always be the same age.