The Voices of Our Generation

The joys and sorrows of your 30s, as seen in Jersey Shore Family Vacation.

Snooki, Pauly D with animation of beer glasses clinking and babies dancing.
Animation by Lisa Larson-Walker. Photos via MTV.

In Slate’s weekly column Who?, the hosts of acclaimed podcast Who? Weekly explore the world of near-fame.

While the big three networks spent the past year rebooting classic television shows like Roseanne (21 years gone!), Will & Grace (11 years!), and Murphy Brown (20 years!), MTV was planning a revival of its own iconic property after a mere six-year hiatus. Six years older and hopefully none the wiser, the original cast of Jersey Shore showed up for Jersey Shore Family Vacation. The reality series premiered on April 5 and has, over the span of two short seasons, quietly become one of the network’s biggest hits since the original went off the air. But this new iteration isn’t all GTL (“gym, tan, laundry”), fluorescent Jello shots, and drunken stumbling—though there is still quite a bit of each. While Jersey Shore was initially a debaucherous, intentionally homogeneous riff on The Real World, Family Vacation is something better. Nine years after we first met the cast, a show about the freedoms afforded to young and directionless millennials in the early Obama years has become a show about the traps of adulthood in the reality TV society they helped create. More than that, it’s a cultural artifact with fascinating and, dare we say it, profound insights into the malaise affecting an entire generation.

Your 20s, they say, are a vacation. But as you get older, those brief moments of reprieve from the burdens of work—periods of time often cruelly controlled by one’s employer—become more and more of a luxury. This version of Jersey Shore isn’t a chronicle of their lives, as it was a decade ago. It’s a chronicle of their vacations (or attempted vacations) from it.

Family Vacation’s first season brought them to Miami—because even though most of the gang resides outside of New Jersey, rolling up to that same dingy house on the boardwalk would be intolerable. Our gang is older and pickier about what constitutes a vacation. Slinging shirts at the Shore Store wouldn’t quite cut it. We watched as each cast member arrived at their sprawling vacation house, but their reintroductions were miles away from those iconic opening vignettes (“Party’s here!” and “Umm, hello!” and [Laughs maniacally]) in which their hopes were high, inhibitions nonexistent, and thirst for partying unquenchable. Nine years after their first summer in Seaside Heights, each of the family members walked into the garish South Beach mansion toting the emotional baggage of every foundational shift they’d endured since leaving the original series.

That baggage? Well:

Ronnie’s Surprise Baby

Snooki and JWoww each have two kids; Pauly D has a daughter he shares custody of with a one-time fling. From your wild 20s, it’s hard to see what settled family life might look like; for viewers of the Jersey Shore cast’s generation, Family Vacation offers the full breadth of possible outcomes, from happy families to baby mamas to more recently announced (but not addressed on the show): divorce.

Family Vacation’s first season revolved around the impending fatherhood of Ronnie—whose ex-girlfriend Sammi “Sweetheart” forwent the reboot all together: She was in a “better place.” (Naturally, they all mocked that place, “replacing” Sammi with a sex doll that recited her catchphrases.) But Ron’s final hurrah celebration quickly turned maudlin, after the cast revealed in confessionals that they didn’t think Ron was truly happy with his on-again, off-again girlfriend, Jen Harley. Season 2 would confirm that suspicion, and the gang’s fun times were punctuated with angry visits from Harley and Ron’s frequent trips to see a child custody lawyer. The cast mates found time to party between all of Ronnie’s personal trials, but in Family Vacation, those were moments of catharsis. Gone are the carefree days of fist-pumping revelry; in their place, brief, EDM-filled escapes from the dull deafening hum of being a grown-up.

The Situation’s Situations

Back in the day, America collectively diagnosed the cast of Jersey Shore with a drinking problem. We were their enablers: We encouraged their insane drunken behavior with laughter, memes, and ratings. Did they all binge drink? Yes. Was it maybe a problem? Sure. Did everyone get sober? Well, one person did!

Perhaps the most heartwarming update to the Jersey Shore crew is a newly engaged and now-sober Situation. Last we saw Mike Sorrentino, he was punching concrete walls and screaming at his cast mates. The Situation’s situation now is one of redemption, doling out helpful advice as he sips on virgin daiquiris. But looming ominously is Sorrentino’s court case, which outside the show just ended with him sentenced to eight months in jail for unpaid taxes. (But not before his Family Vacation! The judge said it was OK!)

As the camera cuts from cast members getting drunk in the middle of the day, to Mike, sitting quietly beside them with a nonjudgmental half-smile on his face, it’s a sobering reminder that time comes for all of us—especially those who based their entire beings, nay, their entire brands around a relentless pursuit of avoiding it. The Situation, don’t forget, got his nickname from the metabolism and gym-dependent situation around his middle: his perfect abs. But when overdrinking turns to overeating—when your days are spent planning a wedding, consulting with lawyers, and figuring out that post–reality show business model—who has time for all those reps?

Vinny’s Newfound Keto Lifestyle

Vinny Guadagnino, once a wannabe lawyer from Staten Island, underwent the sort of physical and spiritual transformation familiar to many struggling thirtysomethings. He became a full-blown wellness nut, branding himself the “Keto Guido” and preaching the trendy low-carb diet’s praises. It’s undeniably depressing watching Vinny drunkenly pull the cheese from his 3 a.m. pizza so that he can avoid eating the crust. Our everyman, Pauly D, acts as we might, groaning in dismay at this violation of the spirit of late-night drunken dining.

But these are the sacrifices we make in our 30s as our bodies get softer and our careers get harder—Vinny never finished law school after all. Now with his “Keto Guido” branding, he can easily help guide Jersey Shore fans on the path to health. Just don’t forget to buy these crisps, buy these shirts, and attend this fitness expo. #spon

… And Snooki

Snooki was the breakout star of Jersey Shore. Introduced in the show’s premiere embarrassing herself over and over in front of her new roommates, threatening to leave the house, and, ultimately apologizing and asking for forgiveness, Nicole “Snooki” Polizzi became the most universally beloved of the cast. Almost a decade later, now a best-selling author, devoted mother of two, and wife to the notoriously camera shy Jionni LaValle—the “gorilla” of her dreams—Snooki is the cast member with the least tumultuous personal and professional life.

Befitting the highly capable professional she’s become, Snooki has come into Jersey Shore Family Vacation determined to do her job: keeping the energy of the show as close to a 10 as possible. (As thirtysomethings, they find it understandably much harder to get above a 7 or 8—especially on weeknights.) We all have friends who defy the odds and maintain their youthful exuberance well after crossing the thresholds of marriage and parenthood. In our 30s, it’s still possible to believe that, if we can just work some of our shit out, we might return to the glory days of our youth. (Hey, at least we’re not 40!) Snooki is hope incarnate for the Jersey Shoreians and for all of us; she has long been the show’s physical and spiritual essence, and we’re honestly lucky to have her.

Sure, they’re still the loud, crass, party-loving cast of Jersey Shore—but as such, they’re also fun-house mirrors of their generation. While these reflections are exaggerated, we see parts of ourselves quite clearly and fully recognize their problems as heightened, basic-cable versions of our own. Watching the cast mates navigate love, loss, legal battles, and all the existential crises in between is a strangely comforting reminder—especially for millennials—that adulthood comes for us all, even those who made careers out of fending it off.