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Gym, Tan, Family: 10 Years With ‘Jersey Shore’

Through countless ups and downs, fist pumps and grenades, no show has come closer to capturing the complexities and nuances of real-life friendship

MTV/Ringer illustration

In 2009, after years of cruising through Southern California beach towns, MTV decided to switch coasts, to pivot from wealthy West Coast teens to a relatively foreign group of people, ones who are generally found north of Delaware Bay and bound by a unique set of grooming standards and social habits, and who fondly referred to themselves as “guidos.”

Guidos are a regional group; a “bridge-and-tunnel crowd bound together more by attitude than by ancestral homeland,” according to a 2003 Washington Post article. At the time, they were characterized less by a common Italian heritage and more by distinct spray tans, chiseled abs, heavily managed hairdos that often reached skyward, and a passion for partying. And for all intents and purposes, the home of the guidos—at least as far as MTV was concerned—was a strip of land just south of Asbury Park. For years, guidos (and guidettes) flocked to sections of the Jersey Shore during the summer with the consistency of a migratory pattern, landing along the Atlantic to mate and preen. Centering a reality show in Seaside Heights gave MTV a series that mixed The Real World and anthropological study; it was a perfect inverse of Laguna Beach and would likely be deemed too culturally exploitative to get green-lit today.

For Season 1 of Jersey Shore, MTV scoured the tri-state area and emerged with a cast of DJs, bartenders, and aspiring vet techs who met its standards, which were: tan and ripped. The network set them up in a shore house with a hot tub and an endless supply of Miller Lite, gave them jobs at a boardwalk T-shirt shop, and willed them to create chaos. It worked. The cast of the Jersey Shore—Nicole “Snooki,” Jenni “JWoww,” Pauly D, Mike “the Situation,” Vinny, Ronnie, Sammi, Angelina, and, in later seasons, Deena—descended on Seaside Heights like whirling dervishes of hairspray and vodka, fist-pumping their way through bars with names like Karma, Dream, Bamboo, and Aztec, and leaving a hair-gel slick of mayhem in their wake.

Jersey Shore Season 1

The roommates were reckless and unpredictable (coupling and recoupling among the cast and with Seaside Heights tourists who stripped in the hot tub), hilarious and horrifying (fighting one another, and strangers, in the house, on the dance floor, and on the boardwalk), but even after a first season that created a sensation and ended on a ratings high, their stardom was expected to burn out with the waning days of August. “Maybe we should get a shore house together next summer,” Mike said as the group clustered on the roof of the house in season finale, and yet, the end of the first season felt like just that: an end. Maybe the Shore mates would put in another year or so, but surely after that they’d move on and fade into the same sort of quasi anonymity afforded to former Real World castmates and Bachelor contestants.

But somehow, unexpectedly, they kept going. The original Jersey Shore housemates have gotten richer and rowdier, partied through Miami, Italy, and New Jersey again, and left bronzer stains on the Seaside Heights boardwalk and the American psyche. This week marks the 10th anniversary of the show’s first episode, and not only are seven of the eight original castmates still filming together, they also appear to be deeply involved in one another’s lives.

If you look past the Ron Ron Juice (ice, cranberry juice, watermelon, and roughly an entire fifth of vodka), the Spiral Squad, the keto obsessions, the hair-pulling, the clothes-tossing, the questionable use of the word “grenade,” the questionable treatment of women at large—the core of the show has always been the housemates’ required Sunday family dinner, and with that, the relationships that have withstood a decade. There’s no other show in the past 10 years to feature such unmitigated rage energy; there’s also nothing else that has been such an honest, consistent description of long-standing friendship and the way in which it evolves.

For viewers of a certain age, the siren call of “Cabs are here” evokes the same sort of sophomoric nostalgia as the taste of vending machine Sprite and peach Burnett’s. The show premiered when I was a freshman in college, and we watched it on Thursday evenings in someone’s dorm. Snooki’s high-pitched cackle served as a pregame background noise and a reassurance that even at our absolute worst, we could never be as reckless as those on the screen. This summer, a friend from college got me into Family Vacation, the newest iteration in the Shore universe, and I was taken aback at how the cast and plot (or lack thereof) captivated me more than prestige TV or other reality shows. “We’ve grown up with them,” my friend reasoned. Which is true: Watching them feels like settling into comfortable dysfunction, like finding your place at a hectic family dinner where you realize the conversation is wildly inappropriate, but you still fit right in.

When the Season 2 premiere came out in 2010, it was the most-watched cable episode of the year among 12- to 34-year-olds. Many of the viewers were close in age to the cast, and have therefore checked off similar life milestones—weddings, babies, messing up their taxes—around the same time as Snooki, Deena, and Mike. Part of the cast’s staying power comes from their rawness. There are other reality stars with similar longevity, but in most cases, they came into the public consciousness airbrushed, armed with more wealth and sun-dappled self-awareness than the average population. Kristin Cavallari and Lauren Conrad had drama, of course, but it never really included them flashing an entire bar because they forgot underwear. The Kardashians have been around since 2007, but their brand of mess is much more carefully constructed, with Kris Jenner orchestrating controversies and blurring the lines between reality and real life.

The Jersey Shore cast captivated on the conceit that they are aggressively unfiltered. It’s as if you’d told the drunkest individual at your hometown bar they could make a living off being as loud and as drunk and weird as they could be, then settled in to watch them work for 10 years.

Take “Where’s the Beach” in Season 3, perhaps the most artful reality-show depiction of a bender in the past decade (if not ever!). The narrative arc begins with exposition from the night before at the bar, where Snooki and Deena keep toppling over various surfaces like Weebles. The next morning, Snooki reluctantly shows up to work at the T-shirt shop wearing a blanket over an outfit of green fuzzy slippers and a printed tank top that reads “SLUT.” She begins sneaking Bud Lights in a back room and is reprimanded by her boss. Despondent, Snooki leaves work determined to capitalize on the shampoo effect, and ends up taking tequila shots with a middle-aged couple. She is tugged toward the ocean, as if by an invisible siren, but cannot figure out how to get from the boardwalk to the water. Snooki screams “Where’s the beach?” at innocent passers-by, and by the time she falls into the sand while being chased by JWoww and Deena, she has drawn a crowd of hundreds and the attention of the cops. In a scene that marked the then-nadir of the show’s drunkenness, she is handcuffed, barefoot and bewildered.

Some of the mayhem was less frivolous. Sammi and Ron’s relationship was toxic and often veered into being abusive. The crew openly mocked the size and attractiveness of potential suitors. Mike’s breakdown in Italy culminated in his bashing his own head into a concrete wall, a harbinger of addiction issues that’d take him five seasons to address. If the show were to air for the first time now, as opposed to 2009, there’d likely be much more hand-wringing; it may not have survived for another season. (At the time of the premiere, MTV lost some advertisers after Italian American advocacy groups complained, but for the most part the show continued unheeded.) The early seasons did little to prevent one cast of characters from drunkenly speaking for an entire “guido culture,” therefore dangerously stereotyping a state and its inhabitants.

But the cast was hired for their ability to be themselves, and they continue to do so; it is only natural that real-world cracks—addiction, violence, relationship woes—show through. And with the authenticity comes unscripted loyalty.

Family Vacation, which premiered in 2018, includes seven of the original cast members. Many things have changed, and some have not; they are still messy, but their messiness tends to carry more gravitas and affects more people, a casualty of age for anyone. JWoww’s romantic conquests used to serve as subplots as she managed a long-distance relationship in Season 1, but recent episodes have seen her balancing a public, contentious divorce; Ronnie’s anger issues, which peaked in his Season 3 destruction of Sammi’s belongings, now directly affect his daughter, and he also entered rehab during the filming of Family Vacation.

In the second season of the reunion series, the crew travels out to Las Vegas to see Ronnie. During a tense moment, Ronnie comes clean to the roommates about the increasingly aggressive relationship between him and his on-again, off-again girlfriend and the mother of his daughter, Jen. He sobs, sitting in a hotel room chaise longue with a Corona on the table next to him and Mike in a chair on the other side. Vinny, Pauly D, and JWoww sit on the double bed closest to him and Snooki, in a bra and a leopard robe, reclines on the parallel bed.

“You tend to forget we’ve lived with you for eight houses,” JWoww says at one point, as she points out how the roommates seem to know Ronnie’s weakness better than he does. “We know who you are.”

“Today has been the most stressful day I think that any of us have had together,” Vinny observes. “Ronnie is going through a really hard time right now, and we’re going through it with him.”

Later in the episode, the group leaves to go to dinner, and Ronnie stays back to sort things out with Jen. The rest of the housemates go to an Italian restaurant and immediately begin pounding red wine” “These last couple days have been hectic, crazy, stressful with the Ron stuff,” Snooki says.

“I feel like we are allowed to emotionally eat tonight,” JWoww adds.

Family Vacation

In other moments of strife in Family Vacation—Jenni’s divorce, Mike’s arrest and incarceration for tax fraud, multiple pregnancies—the cast rallies around one another through practical and absurd methods. They bring three Funfetti cakes, Doritos, ice cream cake, soda, cookies, and powdered doughnuts to Mike and his fiancée after his sentencing. They also impulsively fly to Washington, D.C., to confront President Trump in person about getting Mike out of jail—but just end up drinking a lot of wine on a private jet.

That, at the end of the day, is what keeps them in the public consciousness. But because of the cast’s unexpected endurance, these moments now carry far more weight than a reality show has any business to. Now when they get drunk, as they often still do, conversations are more likely to be heartfelt confessions of lost love (as in Snooki and Ron’s Miami bender in Family Vacation) than seedy confessions of Smush Room endeavors. Snooki, Jenni, Deena, Pauly, Vinny, Ronnie, and Mike are older now, facing the harsh obstacles that tend to come with getting older—but they’re still going through it in front of a camera. And they’re still going through it together.

The reality television boom has offered dramatic scenarios of all types, locations, and characters in the past 20 years. But a decade-long friendship—with all of its nuances, dramas, betrayals, breakups, and reunions—is much harder to find on cable, let alone in the real world.

“I would love to be in this house 50 years from now,” Snooki said early on in the Jersey Shore’s run. At this rate, she might not be far off.