Culture

You can’t always go home again — just ask the cast of ‘Jersey Shore’

Revisiting the show’s bizarre fourth season, in which the cast was soundly rejected by the motherland.

Culture

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Culture

You can’t always go home again — just ask the cast of ‘Jersey Shore’

Revisiting the show’s bizarre fourth season, in which the cast was soundly rejected by the motherland.

During Jersey Shore’s glory days, Ronnie, Snooki, Mike “The Situation,” Vinny, Pauly D, Sammi “Sweetheart,” JWoww, and Deena transformed an obscure beachtown into a household brand synonymous with Gomorrahite levels of debauchery. Critics claimed that Jersey Shore reduced an entire culture to fist-pumping, binge drinking, and spray tans, though the hit show rarely addressed the criticism or engaged in any sort of self-reflection about identity. As long as they were still welcomed at Club Karma, no think-piece or petition could ruin their fun.

Only in its bizarre fourth season, set in Florence, Italy, did Jersey Shore try to delve deeper than its artifice and dare to ask some larger questions about the American immigrant experience. What happens when you finally visit the country your family is from? Will you even fit in?

As a televised introduction to the “guido” lifestyle, Jersey Shore was as much National Geographic as it was Real World. By throwing its characters into the country that was the basis of their brand, MTV pushed the limits of their cultural investigation. The results were oddly depressing — the cast attempted to return to the motherland, but found themselves adrift. By failing so spectacularly, they managed to expose how going on a heavy-handed trip to your ancestral home can feel anticlimactic.

During the first three seasons, set in Seaside Heights and Miami, the show established a formula: The cast spent their days violently hungover or working some service industry gig and spent their nights dancing to EDM, “smooshing,” and shouting obscenities into the Smirnoff-soaked abyss. The fourth season tried to replicate the success of the previous years in a completely new element. When MTV announced that Italy was going to be Jersey Shore’s next destination, Chris Linn, the Head of Production, raved in a press release. “The cast is headed to the birthplace of the culture they love and live by. We can’t wait to see what erupts as a result.”

At first, the entire gang seemed genuinely thrilled to be in their cultural “birthplace.” Deena waxed poetic about her ideal Italian romance — a man who rides a Vespa that she “won’t do sex with” until she can “figure them out.” Sammi “Sweetheart” talked about her curiosity for “what the discotecas look like.” And right when Vinny got off the plane, he rushed to touch the ground, later saying in a confessional how amazing it was to breathe “Italian air” and feel the “Italian sun.”

Though they worked at a pizzeria and occasionally did bring home some Italians, Florence quickly became a picturesque backdrop for their tired antics. Sammi “Sweetheart” and Ronnie began the season with vows of staying single, but by the third episode, they were back to their typical, manipulative games. Instead of engaging with Italian culture or their heritage, the cast members were immediately content with living in their bubble. The biggest effort they made to learn Italian was when they jokingly translated their signature catchphrases — Pauly D screams “TAXIS SON QUI” while Mike half-heartedly renames himself “Situazione.” (Vinny used the few Italian words he knows to unsuccessfully hit on women.) Besides going to the discotecas, the show soon became a montage of them lounging in their mansion and working out at the gym.

Sammi and Ronnie, back at it again.

Sammi and Ronnie, back at it again.

The cast was doomed from the start, thanks to the backlash from the Italian locals and government officials. When the show was being filmed in the summer of 2011, both The Wall Street Journal and New York Post reported that Florentinos were angry with the cast’s presence. A restaurant placed a “No Grazie, Jersey Shore” sign. Matteo Renzi, then mayor of Florence, banned the cast from “clubs and bars that serve alcohol” to stop them from portraying the cultural destination as a “party town.” The Wall Street Journal theorized that “the clash of cultures is rooted in opposing views of what it means to be ‘Italian.’” The Florencian iteration was sophisticated, while the “guido” brand was more obnoxious and loud.

The lack of chemistry with their kinsmen soon revealed itself. There was nothing so obvious as facetime with an Italian explaining their sentiments about the whole Jersey Shore enterprise, but instead a persistent frustration felt in the background via the bewildered looks and angry screams of the locals. In the season’s climax, the crew’s restlessness boiled over. Snooki and Deena visit a restaurant at 11 AM, and start grinding on one another as an Italian couple quietly eat their gelato and smile at the spectacle. Later that evening, a packed nightclub curse out the gang, leading “The Situation” and Pauly D to bark back in English, otherwise ineffectual in an unfamiliar environment.

A sole positive moment occurred when the male cast members visited Vinny’s relatives in Sicily. After feasting on spaghetti and bonding with Vinny’s friendly family, the usually rambunctious men gaze off into the Sicilian countryside, finding a rare moment of peace. Back in Staten Island, Vinny’s family dinners were portrayed as warm moments that hinted at a culture beyond fist-pumping. It makes sense that he provides some much needed sentimentality, but it doesn’t last for long. The episode soon cuts back to the female cast-members wreaking havoc in wine-country — farting, cackling, and fighting over “smooshing” drama.

Italians bewildered by Snooki and Deena.

Italians bewildered by Snooki and Deena.

Going on trips to your ancestral home is a widespread practice in American immigrant communities. China, Israel, Italy, and Armenia — to name a few — have planned expeditions for Americans seeking the allegedly life-changing experience of revisiting their roots. The reality of these trips is often too complicated to easily express. Sometimes, this pressure to experience something significant makes it aggressively neutral. But on TV, things can’t be too ambiguous or mundane. Whether it’s facilitating epiphanies or warmly reaffirming characters’ perception of their own identity, these trips always hold a profound importance and have a clear purpose.

In the second season of The Sopranos, Tony Soprano and the gang go to Naples to work out the details of an illicit car-selling business. Tony starts off romanticizing the Italian mafia’s traditional, family-oriented practices but soon starts arguing with the local mob boss. At night, he has a dream of having sex with the queenpin — they are both dressed in Roman centurion outfits, making love against a rustic background. The dream represents some fleeting, nostalgic fantasy — a fantasy that Tony later lets go when he reconciles with the fact that the crime family he once held in high regard is now lead by a woman he’ll have to treat as his equal.

The recent season of Transparent, set in Israel, also features American characters having their worldview shifted while exploring their homeland. At the start of the family trip, Ali Pfefferman leaves Tel Aviv to meet up with activists in Ramallah protesting the Israeli occupation of the West Bank. Ali feels angry about being in Israel, but struggles to articulate this rage. Though the show briefly has some heavy-handed discussions about local politics amongst the activists, the purpose of the trip shifts to the exploration of Ali’s gender, culminating with the realization they are non-binary. Israel, with all of its pressures to feel something spiritual or political, ultimately gives way to a personal revelation.

In prestige dramas, a character’s native country is an ideal setting for them to come to existential conclusions. These countries push characters to overcome inner struggles by launching them into a tailspin of questioning and doubt. But Jersey Shore’s fourth season didn’t want anything more than to communicate a simple, superficial message about the importance of exploring your heritage. The problem was that Florentines didn’t want to participate in this reality TV spectacle, leaving the cast and their producers isolated and alone.

DJ Mustard Pimp’s “Figaro Fist Pump,” the season’s promo track, sonically captures this culture clash.

By the finale, everyone was more than ready to leave. Pauly D complained about needing a spray-tan because he was now “pale.” On one of their last days in Florence, they celebrated their return to New Jersey with an American BBQ, and later looked up at an airplane with anticipation. In their season reunion, on a stage decorated with kitschy Roman columns and statues, they could barely muster a few words about what they enjoyed about Italy. (Snooki said she admired the “geography,” but then meandered into a monologue about “landscaping” and “orange roofs.”)

The tenth season of Keeping Up With The Kardashians accomplished what Jersey Shore sought out to do, likely because they were already significant ahead of their trip home. When Kim and Khloe go to Armenia, they use their trip as an opportunity to add cultural importance to their brand. Kim is shown as the people’s princess, taking selfies with fans, exploring cultural centers, and raising awareness of the 100th anniversary of the Armenian Genocide. After waiting outside Kim’s hotel for hours, an old woman from the same town from the Kardashians kisses her and proclaims, “the most beautiful girl in the world!” Strangers treat her like family — the dream of anyone trying to go home for the first time.

Now that Jersey Shore has returned years later, this time in the familiar territory of Miami, it has another opportunity to deliver the world-class debauchery that made the show notorious. This time, however, the stars are at significantly different stages of their lives: Snooki and JWoww are mothers, “The Situation” is sober and bruised from legal troubles, and Ronnie hasn’t been with his “Sweetheart” in years. In the comfort of Miami’s bustling nightclubs and tanning salons, the cast will be reunited in a motherland that’s more fitting and welcoming — their very own paradiso where they can fist-pump and explore their authentic roots, again.

Daniel Spielberger is a writer in Los Angeles.