I used to think of my trashy-TV viewing as a necessary but guilty habit. I spend my days reading fine literature and knocking my skull trying to write it. I've long taught in public schools, and I'm married to an economics reporter, and I come from a family of activists, so dinner conversation tends to not be so light. When I curl up to watch TV, I can do without substance. I prefer gossip, hookups, catfights. I want to gawk at clothes, hair, implants.
Lots of reality shows have satisfied these requirements over the years: Rock of Love, Real Housewives, The Millionaire Matchmaker (even though Patti Stanger is kind of a hideous person). As does MTV's Jersey Shore, which completes its second season tonight and has already bestowed on our culture such iconic images as Jwoww's physics-defying halter tops, Snooki getting punched out by a Queens gym teacher, and Mike sitting down with an egg sandwich to watch Pauly get it on with a girl who's "DTF" (uncomfortably, my initials) at six in the morning.
But this week, as I started to anticipate Jersey Shore withdrawal, it occurred to me that the show isn't just great trashy-TV. Or even just great TV. It's some pretty great storytelling, and it holds some valuable lessons for literary folks like me. (I realize I'm running the risk of sounding archly hip, in the way that Gawker appends to every mention of the show the tagline, "the most important sociological experiment of our time." But I'm serious.)
Take character development. Initially, we might've tuned in just to snicker at those orange-skinned, big-haired, self-proclaimed Guidos and Guidettes, but the show has cumulatively revealed each of these kids as fully, gloriously human. Every episode contains scenes that define the fundamental character of each cast member--as well as scenes that complicate that picture. Each of them is given space to be shape-shifting, to surprise us, to alternate between self-awareness and self-delusion.
Thus, we know Mike as a reptilian predator--and as someone who hankers for peaceful group dinners, who gives us surprisingly dead-on commentary. We can't help feeling invested in their travails, whether involving a gelato scoop or a cheating boyfriend. By now, we intuit the differing nuances each time Snooki flounces off in her fuzzy slippers or Sammi tells Ronnie to "do you." Even the widely despised Angelina, who comes closest to a flat character, exhibits something almost endearing in her dating moxie, her amazing ability to be totally bitchy while preserving not a shred of dignity, even the way she incessantly yanks at the hem of the dress her mother sent (which is indeed, as her mother feared, too small).
Entwined with all this are issues of gender and ethnicity--depicted more honestly than in much of today's fiction. As is oft-noted, some of the cast members aren't Italian; they claim the Guido/Guidette identity as a lifestyle, a culture. Snooki, who was adopted from Chile, simply calls herself tan. These traits are part of the continuum of their characters, not plot points, not symbols, and not all-defining. Similarly, in terms of gender, the girls declare their man-eating abilities, yet find themselves calling Angelina a whore--and acknowledging the double standard. They engage in talk of female empowerment and solidarity, take pride in not cooking and cleaning, and freely pick fights and smack guys in the face--secure in the knowledge that those guys won't "do something about it." Which isn't to say that's progress--only that it captures the complicated, often contradictory, and generally fluid ways in which these aspects of our identities are actually lived.
Then, the show is viscerally funny, inducing cringes, guffaws, and dropped jaws in roughly equal measure, in the way that few books seem to be. As in that indelible hot tub scene where a visitor's "chicken cutlet" floats out of her bra and up to the surface. Maybe my sense of humor is unevolved, but too often, I pick up a novel that's been described as hilarious, only to find that the laughs are mostly located in the author mocking his own creations for being less clever than he and his reader. Jersey Shore is funny in the way life is funny, accidentally and intentionally, with sudden bursts and slow buildups, with someone in on the joke or getting the joke right along with us.
Perhaps most of all, I'm struck by how much material must have been gathered for the show's editors to cull what they did. Nearly every scene depicts at least one line of tension, and the following scenes advance each tension until the conflicts break open, one after another, with suitable lulls in between: meticulously choreographed fireworks. Some of this is due simply to the casting and premise--but much of it is due to the editors, who were obviously ruthless in their selection. They cut the dull scenes that went nowhere and, likely, some hugely entertaining scenes that didn't advance the story. Similarly, a writer's craft involves wading through no end of sludge in order to gather our pearls. It's only when we find each pearl that we realize the rest is sludge. And by then, the sludge is hard to shake -- but that's our duty. There's no other way to arrive at the economy and clarity that mark good literature -- and Jersey Shore.
Finally, there's a difference between that kind of ruthless editing and the fake, icky staging that taints other shows like Keeping Up with the Kardashians. Similarly, writers often navigate a tricky path between manipulating our characters through the machinations of our plots and leaving them to muddle through a story that's ill-defined and fuzzy. Some of us like to call that ambiguity -- but it isn't. Real ambiguity, the right kind of ambiguity, is when there's absolute clarity about what happened -- and very little about what it all means. That's up to the reader.
The people behind Jersey Shore get that. As viewers, we're shown every event that led, for instance, to Sammi and Jwoww's brawl, from the three-way kiss to the unfortunate letter--but the debate rages on over who won, who was right, why they shouldn't have done what they did, and how the hell Ronnie emerged unscathed.
And for that, I thank them. Seriously.