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Home Is Where the Club Is: Why ‘Jersey Shore: Family Vacation’ Works

Beneath the GTL, the show has always been about friendship

The cast of ‘Jersey Shore’ Getty Images/Ringer illustration

The reality TV landscape is littered with shows that purport to give a window into some kind of subculture. Bravo didn’t invent this approach, but it went mainstream with The Real Housewives of Orange County. That show introduced viewers to rarefied life in a gated community. The appeal, as with predecessors that included Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous and even The Osbournes, was access to excess that is unlike the ordinary American’s life, while also presenting friend fights and inevitable divorces that were overwhelmingly familiar. Ultimately, Real Housewives of Orange County worked because it captured a group of women who were connected before any camera crews arrived. They were friends who were also rich.

The Housewives model of following friend groups has become Bravo’s calling card, though the veracity of the friendships among housewives is not as believable as it once was. For example, the New York ladies openly admit to going months without talking to each other. Several of the Housewives franchises have devolved into following the lives of a few women who participate in themed parties and far-flung vacations with each other for the sake of the show. They also gather in groups of two and three to talk shit about each other, again for the sake of the show. As the franchises became more popular and the casts regularly populated the pages supermarket tabloids, the subculture became harder to isolate and penetrate, and the appeal changed, if not evaporated all together.

No reality show’s stars went from obscurity to international fame faster than the cast of MTV’s Jersey Shore. At its inception, the show combined the Real World model of putting strangers into a house together and the Housewives subculture-documenting ethos. MTV viewers might have been familiar with the Jersey Shore summer scene from True Life: I Have a Summer Share, but Jersey Shore exposed the general public to a bronzed lifestyle that includes copious amounts of alcohol and time devoted to doing laundry. The first season was a true revelation, which is why Jersey Shore: Family Vacation, a reboot currently airing on MTV on Thursday nights (Jerzday, baby!), seemed like a terrible, unwinnable idea. How could the miracle of seeing a grown man refer to his toned abdominal muscles as “The Situation” be rebooted? Is there any fun in watching three parents, one father-to-be, one sober person, one health nut, and Deena (who didn’t join the cast until the second summer at the shore) hang out in Miami?

The answer to the latter is a resounding yes. Mike Sorrentino’s situation is, per the opening credits, under construction, as he has gained a few pounds. He no longer drinks or uses drugs and is beleaguered by legal woes due to tax evasion, so presumably he has had less time to maintain his physique and the GTL lifestyle all together. But GTL—which, of course, stands for Gym, Tan, Laundry—was more of mind-set anyway, and the entire cast has fallen back into it for Jersey Shore: Family Vacation.

Their lives have all evolved: Snooki and JWoww are each married with kids, living in New Jersey. Deena is recently married. Pauly D is a father and lives in Las Vegas, and, thanks to parlaying his fame, is a rich and successful DJ. Ronnie also lives in Vegas, though on the surface he’s changed the least. Vinnie is less the straight man and more straight edge; he abides by a strict Keto diet (except for when he’s at the club) and more nuanced gym sessions. Nevertheless, this seven-piece still loves to party and they still love each other, and it turns out that a collective affinity for drunken escapades and each other is enough to sustain an unlikely reboot.

The show was initially couched as a look at how a specific kind of culture summers, and, after the show exploded into a true juggernaut, it became more about capturing the dynamics of a friend group. Even now, more than five years later, the group shares bonds that are common to professional athletes or child actors who grow up together: They got famous together, which comes with an unshakeable trust because of the shared experience. But, fortunately, that doesn’t mean they stop fighting.

In episodes 1 and 2 of the current season, Deena and Ronnie have some beefs to address. For one, Deena is still very close with Sammi Giancola, an original cast member and Ronnie’s ex-girlfriend. They had an obviously toxic relationship for seven years after meeting on the show. His fraught relationships are likely not limited to his with Sammi: Last month, Ronnie and his now-ex-, then-pregnant girlfriend took turns calling each other out on Instagram for infidelities, which culminated a live video on the platform from his account and a physical altercation not captured on video. Sammi declined to participate in this season because she didn’t want to be around Ron. Ronnie holds that friendship against Deena, who has a much more significant grievance against him. Her father died recently, and he didn’t reach out in any way when that happened, which is not only inconsiderate and cold, but a friendship-ending offense.

Through luck or careful plotting, Deena and Ronnie work through these issues on camera. It’s engrossing television, but also a convenient way for viewers who have missed their Jersey Shore friends to catch up with old pals. This season has perfectly mimicked what it’s like to reunite with childhood friends who live far away and who you don’t get to see too often. The crew spent episodes 1 and 2 catching up and awkwardly, but politely sitting in a group drinking. By Episode 3, they broke off into smaller groups, still armed with drinks. And by Episode 4, things got sloppy. Ronnie, Vinnie, and Pauly brought home some random girls. (Note to random girls: Don’t sign the on-air waiver!) By Episode 5, Ronnie went into a bathroom (the one place without cameras) with one of the women he met at the club, and footage of him dancing with the same woman surfaced on Instagram. His then-girlfriend ignores his calls, and the entire group is involved in his damage control. Everyone in the house is trying to explain to Ronnie how he messed up, and though they don’t approve of his behavior, they’re involved now. They assist in his damage control and the reunion is complete, even if the event that binds them together is blatant cheating from Ronnie.

The cast made it easy to fall back in with them, even if production did not. If something looks askew, it’s not just a result of cosmetic surgery. During the years that Jersey Shore was off the air, the E! Network left its imprint on reality TV with Keeping Up With the Kardashians and its associated spinoffs. Those shows have a very specific look, more akin to a sitcom drenched in a Kardashian-level of gloss. After all, if Kim K has mastered anything, it’s good lighting. E!’s look is a stark contrast to the grainier, verité style of the original Jersey Shore, but the reboot seems to have adopted the softer version. The new aesthetic is more fitting of famous people, but their personal styles haven’t changed much. They all wear shirts emblazoned with logos that I’m sure the Shore Store would love to sell. The men still unveil T-shirts moments before going out, and thus T-Shirt Time continues.

This version of Jersey Shore is, as the name indicates, a true vacation. They are in Miami for one month, and at the end they’ll all return to the lives they’ve lived since the first show ended. Their individual pursuit of fame and riches never paused, anyway. The acknowledgment of the Instagram account documenting their activities in Miami tips at the fundamental difference between Jersey Shore: Family Vacation and the show that took over culture in 2009. Everyone on this show is famous. They have opportunities to make money that the contestants of The Bachelor would lust over.

This season chronicles what it’s like to return to the place that transformed your life. For ordinary people, that might be college or summer camp. For the cast of Jersey Shore, that’s a lifestyle revolving around clubbing, workouts, and personal hygiene. Many reboots imply that the talent is available because they don’t have anything else to occupy them or their careers didn’t work out as planned. This group was never supposed to be internationally renowned. We’re watching them return to normalcy, and that is free of the worry about what will come of their careers. As long as they find time to fist-bump with their roommates, all will be well.