Sometime between The Situation bashing his own head against a cement wall and Snooki wailing in the dark streets of Florence, Italy—“Where is my boyfriend?”—I stopped laughing.
It wasn’t just that the newness of Jersey Shore had worn off. The crazy kids who taught a nation about GTL and human grenades while consuming buckets of alcohol and hooking up right and left were changing—and not in the amusing train wreck kind of way that might make you fist-pump and keep watching. This was cringe-inducing stuff, alcoholism and domestic violence escalating at a rapid pace, with the cameras rolling, of course.
The worst of it actually happened toward the end of the third season, when Ronnie and Sammi got into their 5,000th fight, and their usual brand of disgusting verbal abuse turned into physical violence, scaring even the other guys in the Seaside Heights house. By the time the gang arrived in Italy for the fourth season, it did not seem possible that those two would ever want to date again, but they did. And the fighting ensued immediately, with the help of The Situation, who as Ronnie has correctly stated should really be called “The Instigator.” That particular fight ended ludicrously, with The Situation slamming his own head on a cement wall and winding up in the hospital with a concussion.
Elsewhere in Florence, Snooki and Deena, the self-described “meatballs,” continued on their path of self-destruction, drinking all day and all night and exposing their private parts in nightclubs in the process. That did not sit well with Jionni, Snooki’s boyfriend, who ran away only hours after arriving in Italy because he didn’t like the way Snooki was showing off her vagina while dancing with him at a club. In what qualifies as the most excruciating reality-television moment of 2011, a very drunk Snooki took to the streets of Florence, sobbing and screeching, “Where is my boyfriend?”. Her boyfriend was catching a train to Rome, trying to wipe all memories of Jersey Shore from his brain.
Which is pretty much how I was feeling. Jersey Shore has always lived in that space between the entertaining (Snooki and her pickles) and the appalling (atrocities in toilets). For better or worse, they are a memorable cast of characters, the likes of which we’d never seen on television before. But during their stint in Italy, it seemed the Jersey kids were getting as bored as the audience with the reality routine that turned them all into household names. The season premiered with nearly 9 million viewers, a record for the show and MTV. But when the gang said arrivederci to Florence, the audience had shrunk to 6.5 million viewers—still a respectable rating but one that shows a possible waning of the public fascination with the guidos and guidettes.
Jersey Shore had already been out of its element in Miami’s South Beach, during its second season, and the cast made the most of that. So production decided to push the show further by setting last season in the motherland, which is in and of itself a joke, since many of them are not really Italian. In Florence, however, production faced an unexpected obstacle: many businesses refused to allow filming, limiting how the cast spent its time. As a result, the gang worked at a pizzeria, hung out at home, and went out to the same clubs over and over. Even their gym-tan-laundry routine was disrupted when they discovered Florence wasn’t as high on indoor tanning as Seaside Heights and “the gyms were crap,” according to Pauly D. “Smushing” also was on the decline, as Snooki and Jenni spent all their time pining for their boyfriends, Deena tried unsuccessfully to sleep with Pauly D, Vinny and Pauly D weren’t interested in anyone they met, and The Situation used up most of his energy trying to bed twins. If production had hoped the cast would turn lemons into lemonade by taking in the sights and culture, they were let down. The cast waited to go sightseeing until the final day.
Perhaps that is how the show became more contrived than ever. Recent revelations that reality television is not real by soon-to-be Kim Kardashian’s ex-husband Kris Humphries aside, Jersey Shore was refreshing in the beginning because it seemed determined to allow the cast to be themselves, no matter the cost. But when their fourth romp together was in definite need of a jolt, producers took matters into their own hands. Many of the interactions among cast members seemed forced, and one viewer noticed behind-the-scenes direction of a bar fight in the penultimate episode of the season. Comedian and Jersey Shore fan Sean Klitzner posted a clip showing a producer guiding Snooki and Deena during a bar fight with other patrons. The video has since been removed “for legal reasons,” but the description of how it all went down is still up.
Now as the fifth-season premiere approaches on Jan. 5 and the cast is back in Seaside Heights, will anyone care? In the two years since they were introduced to the world, the Jersey crew has earned millions of dollars, sat on every talk-show couch, and walked hundreds of red carpets. With two of them in their 30s, and all of their partying and carefree reputations beaten to a pulp, it seems a perfect time for the Jersey Shore cast to cash it in, lest they go the way of the stars of another MTV hit, Heidi and Spencer of The Hills.
If the premiere episode is any indication, Seaside Heights will bring out some of the best in the cast—Snooki missed pickles so much she drinks pickle juice right out of a jar, and Pauly D rushes off to tan because “I’m almost as white as my teeth”—and a lot of their worst. A “surprise” party in a bar that involves the cast’s family and friends creates the first brawl of the season, as The Situation continues his quest to have Snooki admit to Jionni, her boyfriend, and the world that he and she slept together before the Italy season. If it was meant to be a Survivor moment—the episode in which competitors get messages from home and even get to see some of their loved ones—that’s not how it plays out.
On the Jersey Shore, The Situation has something he did not have in Florence, two witnesses: his buddy, The Unit, whom we see spraying his genitals with some sort of cologne or deodorant for no apparent reason, and Snooki’s best friend, Ryder. And (yet again!) The Sitch is threatening Snooki to ruin her relationship, even though he claims to love her so much.
“All two witnesses are going to be in the same house with the boyfriend,” The Situation says proudly to the cameras. “Like that’s crazy! That’s like ironic! Poetic! It’s insane!”
It is indeed.