I watch Jersey Shore. There, I said it. Don’t tell my parents. Don’t tell my pastor, but it’s true.
For what it’s worth, I never wanted it to be like this. Jersey Shore celebrates all that is wrong with America—fake tans, self-ascribed nicknames and Ed Hardy T-shirts not least among them—and it was never my intention to encourage it. I watched one episode last January as “research” for an article I was working on at the time, and expected to come away with reasons aplenty to heap scorn on the show and all associated with it. But then one episode turned into two. And then two episodes turned into a Saturday afternoon marathon. And then, before I knew what was happening, I was setting up a “series record” on my DVR.
Don’t get me wrong: the show is every bit as tasteless, brainless and (insert negative adjective) you’ve heard it is. But it, like all train wrecks, maintains a certain hypnotic allure, and it was in this net that I became ensnared.
Jersey Shore promotes a lifestyle so bizarre, so unhealthy, so completely other from anything I have ever known that watching it feels less like a voyeuristic indulgence than a study in social anthropology. It might as well be a Travel Channel piece on Outer Mongolia. With the slang, and the hair, and the midnight sunglasses, it’s easy to forget that what I’m watching is occurring in the same country I call home. Turning the channel, however, isn’t nearly as easy.
And I’m not the only one who thinks so. If the 2000s were about the rise of reality television, the last five years have been about the genre’s subsequent descent into the gutter. Jersey Shore is, by a considerable margin, the most popular member of the “trash reality” movement, but by no means is it alone.
The Oxygen Channel’s Bad Girls Club has been going strong since 2006. MTV’s bisexual dating show, Shot at Love with Tila Tequila, was so popular it was granted not only a second season but two spinoffs as well.
The Girls Next Door enjoyed a six-season run and spawned three spinoffs before sashaying back to the centerfold from whence it came. And it was announced last fall that we’ll soon have the opportunity to keep up with the Kardashians for a sixth season. With Season 4 of Jersey Shore airing later this year, I’m not sure where we’ll find the time.
Trash reality has demonstrated, in both popularity and staying power, that it is no mere blip on the pop culture radar. It is here to stay and it is gaining market share. But why? What is it about these self-absorbed, inarticulate Neanderthals that so enthralls us as a nation?
The easy answer is: just look at America! With a society as ethically bankrupt as ours, what else could we expect from our programming but mindless debauchery? After all, isn’t entertainment simply a mirror of its audience?
Yes, that is surely one explanation for it. But it doesn’t go far enough. The parade of poor decisions that is Jersey Shore doesn’t merely reflect the absence of virtue in American life; it pushes the boundaries of decency until it offends the few virtues that remain. And therein lies the root of its success. It succeeds not because it reminds us of ourselves, but because it reminds us we could always be worse.
The show sets 99.9 percent of Americans on the moral high ground. It is the anti-role model—the morality tale that pushes the bar for boorish behavior so low that even the worst of us can easily step over it. It assures us that, no matter how severe our own shortcomings, there will always be someone more screwed up than us.
Americans don’t want to be told they’re broken, sinful people in need of a Savior. We want to be told: “Hey, don’t beat yourself up. At least you’re not as bad as that guy.” Jersey Shore ensures that we will always have a “that guy.” It offers all Americans the opportunity to join the Pharisee in reciting his favorite prayer, “I thank you, God, that I am not a sinner like [those degenerates on Jersey Shore]. For I don’t [have promiscuous sex], I don’t [fight on the boardwalk], and I don’t [get drunk on weeknights]. I’m certainly not like that [Snooki]!” (Luke 18:11, paraphrased)
This “lowest common denominator” morality is a comforting thing; especially for the majority of Americans whose ethical systems are aiming for “good enough” as opposed to “be holy, for I am holy” (I Peter 1:16). Let’s face it, Jesus Christ, the son of the living God, is a tough act to follow. All that denying ourselves, taking up our crosses daily and losing our lives to save them (Luke 9:23)—it can be humbling, frustrating and downright exhausting. Why go through all that when you could orient your moral compass toward J-Woww instead of Jesus? Suddenly, you find yourself in a much more favorable position. Forget about “work[ing] out your salvation with fear and trembling” (Philippians 2:12). Just don’t get any worse and you’ll be fine. Heck, just put on a shirt and you’re already doing better than her.
Jersey Shore is a giant pat on America’s collective back, and that is why audiences and advertisers continue flocking to it. We want to be offended. We want to be disgusted. We want to be horrified by what we see on TV so we won’t have to be horrified by what we see in our own lives. When viewed in this light, it makes perfect sense that 8.5 million people are tuning in every Thursday night to watch Pauly D and company fight, fist-pump, fake bake and fornicate. As long as they’re doing their thing, the rest of us are freed up to do … well, pretty much anything we want.