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'Jersey Shore' gang's trashy charm has us inexplicably coming back for more

By Hank Stuever
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, July 29, 2010; C01

Sometimes a critic can be wrong without even typing a word. Take "Jersey Shore," for example.

When this guido/guidette group-house reality show debuted on MTV last December, my schedule was full and my eyes were tired and the show gave off a stench of Axe all-over body spray that was just too strong. The idea seemed redundant after decades of well-documented Spring Break and "Real World" debaucheries that came before, and watching a few minutes of that first "Jersey Shore" episode, I wondered if watching a TV show could actually cause chlamydia.

So that's how Snooki snuck by me.

But in a way, didn't she surprise us all? Nicole "Snooki" Polizzi and Mike "the Situation" Sorrentino and the other six stars of "Jersey Shore" (Jwoww, Vinny, Ronnie, Sammi, et al.) looked outdated and dull at first -- very 1998 -- with their gelled-up or ironed-out hairdos, frosty sunglasses and spray-on tans. (The only thing new about them was a surfeit of Ed Hardy T-shirts, and even that already felt old, thanks to Jon Gosselin.) It also seemed somehow telling that MTV plopped the show onto the schedule at Christmastime, where it might have died peacefully.

* * *

As we all know, "Jersey Shore" became a much-discussed hit, in one of those weirdly inexplicable moments when a pop-culture bomb detonates so sensationally that even the president is compelled to make a joke about the noise. (It was a tanning joke, of course, at John Boehner's expense.)

With that, "Jersey Shore" begins its much-anticipated second season Thursday night, and no one is more prepared for this than the cast, with their ongoing (off-camera) demands to be paid more for their "work," unsatisfied with a pay increase to a reported $10,000 an episode. (They want triple that.)

The hook this season finds Snooki and company migrating south for the winter, to their spiritual if not physical home: Miami's South Beach. They have the grim determination of Teamsters about them this time -- they have a job to do and they'll do it well. And this is one reality series where you don't mind that the participants punch the clock the way they punch one another (or the walls). At least it makes a dent in the unemployment rate among 20-somethings.

Early in the show, Snooki gazes out at a post-snowpocalyptic suburban New York wasteland, bemoaning the freezing weather -- in short-shorts. She just won't let go of the tanning-booth tax thing. "I don't go tanning-tanning anymore," she says, unhappily. "Obama put a 10 percent tax on tanning. I feel like he did that intentionally because of us." After the media storm of "Jersey Shore's" initial season, Snooki has every reason to believe the world revolves around her, which it very well may.

Pauly D, with his peanut-butter-cup-wrapper hairstyle, sluices slushy streets and declares: "I can't stand this weather. You can't creep in this weather. You can't get laid in this weather."

In Miami, perhaps even more than in Seaside Heights, N.J., Snooki and her friends (and frenemy Angelina) can most fully be themselves, spending their days GTL ("gym, tanning, laundry," in the immortal words of the Situation, the house alpha male) and their nights drinking, gyrating, brawling -- with intermittent, carnal baptisms in their roiling hot tub.

As narrative connecting tissue, the makers of "Jersey Shore" frequently use a scratchy-film effect, indicating "the past," which serves to recap what happened last season but also what happened two minutes ago. It has an inebriating result on the viewer, indicating that there is no past or future while at the shore (any shore). There is only now: drinking now, fist-pumping now, fighting now, and if there's a willing "grenade" (a heavyset woman) or "gorilla juicehead" (Snooki's preference in men), sex now.

* * *

The key to "Jersey Shore's" charm is that it's not a social study. As stupid as it looks, and as much as you can hate yourself for watching, it's a complex show about the nature of sin. There's a tendency to examine it too cerebrally in that regard, to think of "Jersey Shore" as pure performance art. Sometimes critics can be wrong in typing too many words.

To fully appreciate the show, one must address some inner biases -- Middle American biases against the tri-state area, mostly -- which are timely, since the show has managed to anger Italian American groups and certain noble-minded Garden Staters.

The reason they object to "Jersey Shore's" extremes is because they know what stereotypes can do. They know what many of us think, deep down, of the horrible accents, the bravado, the filthy talk, the hitting, the threats, the steroidal physiques, the skanky orange skin, the loudness, the crassness, the endless badda-bing.

Who am I talking about? The young adults on "Jersey Shore," sure, and yet so much else: the grouchy crowds at rest stops on the New Jersey Turnpike on a summer Saturday afternoon. Bad Mafia movies. The celebration of thuggery. Ostentatious decor. (To quote a Fred Armisen skit from "Saturday Night Live," mawble cawlumns.)

The Jersey ethos is not for everyone. "Jersey Shore" benefits from a current, communal Jersey moment, which includes "The Real Housewives of New Jersey" on Bravo, which tipped the table, so to speak; and "Jerseylicious," on the Style Network (about a mother and daughter who own a salon). What all these shows have in common is a terrific amount of obnoxious yelling. Watching them quells some inner beast; they slap and scream and throw down so the rest of America won't have to.

Snooki: "I feel like I'm going to be like a tornado. I'm just going to go from place to place, destroying it."

That's it! Ah, wise Snooki -- she always knows: "Jersey Shore" brings a pleasure similar to those Weather Channel shows on which cameras chase disastrous storms and funnel clouds, bringing back actual footage of nature's wrath.

Jersey Shore

(one hour) returns at 10 p.m. Thursday on MTV.

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