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Joanna Weiss

The sights and sounds of the ‘Jersey Shore’

By Joanna Weiss
January 21, 2010

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EVERY YEAR or two, another TV show is declared the end of Western civilization, and this winter it was “Jersey Shore,’’ MTV’s real-life chronicle of breasts, brawls, and drunken amnesia in Seaside Heights, New Jersey. The series, which ends its first season tonight, managed the perfect alchemy for publicity: it was a hit with the right viewers and drew scorn from everyone else, from Italian-American groups to New Jersey legislators to the administrator of Seaside Heights, who said the show doesn’t truly reflect his town.

Untrue? Really? The twentysomething stars of “Jersey Shore’’ are so authentic that when they filmed a “Funny or Die’’ video, pretending their accents and partying ways were an act, they couldn’t remotely pull it off. They hail from across the Eastern seaboard, but their natural habitat seems to be New Jersey, a state that’s soulful in a sometimes-bawdy way. It’s striking that “Jersey Shore’’ took off just as Bruce Springsteen was feted at the Kennedy Center Honors. Both are Jersey institutions that speak a certain truth.

Not that Bruce would approve of “Jersey Shore,’’ or that anyone really needs to. There are things to be learned here, such as how many holes you can cut into a garment and still have it qualify as clothing. But it’s hard to drum up a defense for people whose belief system holds that tanning beds are essential, women are interchangeable, and cheating on your boyfriend is fine as long as there’s house music in the background.

Still, it’s a stretch to think that crude entertainment has now reached some kind of unprecedented low. We are a species that used to watch gladiator matches (and still does, when they’re the subject of high-minded movies and TV series). As University of Connecticut English professor Gina Barreca points out, people in the 18th century, who lacked the convenience of cable TV, used to go to insane asylums for entertainment.

Besides, there’s something condescending about singling out the “Jersey Shore’’ cast for special scorn. Do they party so differently from rich kids in Orange County? Are they less moral and deep than those skeletal “Real Housewives’’? If the right producers filmed the right eight kids at a prep school like Milton Academy, they’d probably come up with something equally salacious.

But it might not be as fun to watch. “Jersey Shore’’ centers on a particular subset of Italian Americans - it’s bacchanalia as identity politics - and Barreca notes that Italian-American culture lends itself to good TV. “Italians have more fun in an afternoon than a lot of ethnic groups have in six months,’’ she says. “It’d be a little harder to do that for, like, the Swiss.’’ She even compares “Jersey Shore,’’ half-jokingly, to Commedia dell’Arte, the bawdy improvisational theater of Renaissance Italy.

Judith Chaffee, a professor of theater at Boston University, acknowledges some surface similarities: the stock characters in Commedia dell’Arte include young lovers who drift in and out of romance (like Sammi and Ronnie, who spend half of each episode fighting, sobbing, then apologizing), and servants who try to avoid work (like Angelina, nicknamed “Jolie,’’ who acted like a job in a t-shirt shop was burden of epic magnitude). The difference, Chaffee says, is that Commedia dell’Arte is fiction, satire, and supremely self-aware.

But then, there are shades of self-awareness in the “Jersey Shore’’ cast. Like other ethnic groups, they’ve appropriated a slur - in this case, “Guido’’ - and turned it into a badge of honor. At least one of them, the guy who calls himself “The Situation,’’ knows how to wring a career out of gross behavior. In another era, he’d have been called Runyonesque, colorful and flawed and supremely American.

And his gross honesty is one reason “Jersey Shore’’ is so compelling. This show doesn’t offer role models or try to uphold values that can fall apart under the cameras’ glare. It doesn’t pretend to any purpose but self-love. The “Jersey Shore’’ stars know precisely who they want to be, whether the rest of us approve or not. They’re fools, but they’re our fools: Born in the USA.

Joanna Weiss can be reached at weiss@globe.com.