Why 'Jersey Shore' is better than 'Boardwalk Empire'


Image Credit: Ian Spanier/MTV; Abbot Genser/HBO

Boardwalk Empire is the absolute Platonic Ideal of the modern television drama: Lavishly expensive, produced by HBO, created by a writer of The Sopranos, stamped with artistic goodwill by a cinematic icon (Martin Scorsese), featuring elliptical storylines filled with meaningless-and-yet-so-meaningful tangents and just-for-the-hell-of-it soliloquies and brutally sexy violence, all brought to life by a massive cast of theater veterans and big-screen character actors and other generally creative people who don’t mind nudity clauses.

So Boardwalk Empire is the exact polar opposite of Jersey Shore, a show which represents something like the absolute sewer-rat debasement of what used to be called “the documentary art.” Reality TV has never been particularly deep, but earlier shows in the genre resembled social experiments, and could lay claim to some sort of greater cultural utility. The Real World sought to explore the inner lives of the modern young urbanite. Survivor and Big Brother removed contestants from the comfortable context of modern society, creating extended variations on Lord of the Flies. American Idol‘s initial appeal was rooted in a widespread suspicion of the whole musical-industrial complex: The show argued that you didn’t need connections or loose morals to succeed, just a beautiful voice and a story to tell.

All of these shows quickly descended into self-parody. But Jersey Shore could never do that. The show’s series premiere already felt like a parody of The Real World. The Shore cast was mostly comprised of young twentysomethings — besides Pauly, who was almost 30, and The Situation, who was pushing 50 — and so Jersey Shore was one of the first reality shows populated entirely by people who grew up watching reality shows. The cast had no pretensions. They liked to party. They liked to drink. Every episode was — and remains — a downward spiral from stupidity to drunken stupidity, from bad ideas to worse ideas. In the third season, there was a recurring plotline about a clogged toilet. The show is a “social experiment” only in the sense that MTV appears to be testing America’s appetite for watching amoral gym-freaks bathe themselves in vomit-pool. (The early conclusions are promising.)

Visually, Jersey Shore resembles a cheap porno filmed on binder paper projected on the back wall of a flooded-out peep show. Compare that to the desktop-wallpaper beauty of Boardwalk Empire. By mixing together huge Old Hollywood-worthy sets with the foremost digital enhancements, Empire is a model for a beauty that used to be called “cinematic” before the popular cinema mostly devolved into grit-glam hyper-kineticism. And Boardwalk Empire is also about…you know, things. People talk about religion and politics and race. Characters give long, beautifully adorned speeches about their past. (Indeed, there are some characters who seem to purely exist as delivery mechanisms for great dialogue: Michael Stuhlbarg’s Arnold Rothstein, Michael K. Williams’s Chalky White, Dabney Coleman’s majestic old Commodore.)

On a deeper level, Boardwalk Empire feels like what TV should be all about: High drama, great acting, storylines that pay off by sometimes not paying off. Jersey Shore feels like what TV should not be about: People rolling around in their own filth, the constant need for subtitles because everyone is too drunk to enunciate, the creeping realization that these people are making hundreds of thousands of dollars for acting like fifth graders who just broke into their dad’s liquor cabinet. Everyone knows that Television Drama is fundamentally a more noble art form than Reality Television.

And yet, Boardwalk Empire is a consistently disappointing series, and Jersey Shore is a consistently surprisingly decent series. Not ironically good, or so-bad-it’s-good; just a decent, entertaining hour of television. And I’m not just bringing up the two shows because they happen to share a rough geographic locale. Together, the two shows provide a handy state-of-the-art-form portrait of the contemporary TV scene. At a moment when TV comedy seems to be on a creative surge, Boardwalk Empire represents the fragile state of modern TV drama, while Jersey Shore may indicate a hopeful next stage in the evolution of Reality TV.

NEXT: Why Boardwalk Empire and Jersey Shore are actually the same show

Comments (125 total) Add your comment
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  • theperv

    HAHAHAHA! What a load of drivel. Comparing Jersey Shore to Boardwalk Empire is like comparing dried goat testicles to grass-fed top sirloin steak.

    • AS

      If top sirloin is your idea of a quality cut of meat, why should I trust your taste in TV?

      • theperv

        Taste isn’t everything, look at the nutritional value of the meat first.

    • SaraS

      Boardwalk Empire should never be compared to sirloin steak – I tried to watch that show and just couldn’t. It’s boring, not written well.

    • Jay

      I agree that Boardwalk Empire is no good.It is constantly trying to remind us how important it is and over acted. But you don’t have to praise that Jersey Shore crap. Boardwalk is as good as Madmen compared to jersey Shore.

      • Mark

        then what is mad men in comparison to jersey shore?

      • Taylor

        Mad Men is a phenominal show. I don`t understand how you would even consider comparing it to Jersey Shore.

      • Mark

        Just because mad men is a great show and jersey shore is not doesn’t mean you can’t compare them. Comparing two things doesn’t require similarities in quality or content.

      • Wrecked

        @Mark – you are right – you can compare anything you want, but what’s the point?

        I was personally offended by the comparison of BWE and JS, and my time was wasted with this article – and unfortunately I’m still wasting my time with it.

    • Queequeg

      Yet if you’d ever been to Atlantic City lately it looks an awful lot like Jersey Shore, because that’s exactly what it is. Maybe century in between has made the prohibition-era Jersey Shore into today’s Snookie-infested Jersey Shore. Unfortunately for New Jersey, most of the folks at the shore aren’t even from Jersey, but have to take the blame anyway.

    • lisa

      Ive never seen BE but ND is an awesome show!

    • Rush

      Corn fed would have better marbling.

    • MM

      lmao funny comparison

  • Rick Hoberg

    So, now EW has nothing better to publish than inane comparison pieces by morons? Apples and oranges, dimwits! Stop this idiocy, for your own sake.

    • Get Real

      Darren, your are an idiot.

    • Fingerlakes Dave

      HAS to have been a slow news day.
      And so far off the mark!

    • Angela

      Saying someone else is an idiot just makes you seem like a bigger idiot. Clearly, you have nothing better to do than to put dumb comments on an article that, in your opinion, is dumb. If you think it’s dumb, either explain why you think his point is invalid, or just ignore it.

      And @Fingerlakes, it’s a blog. They’re not pretending it’s news.

  • DTO

    I understand some people’s qualms with BOARDWALK EMPIRE. It can be slow and appear quite impressed with its own HBO-ness. Still, you can bash it in its own right without trying to elevate that waste of time, money, and brain matter known as THE JERSEY SHORE to some warholian piece of art. I know, opinions are like a–holes, but yours just let out a turd on the Internet.

    • Tank Girl

      HBO has lost any claims on its HBO-ness with that piece of Skinamax trash called True Blood.

      • DTO

        True that, but with BE and GAME OF THRONES, they’re trying really hard to reclaim their former glory. Still, there’s enough sensationalistic stuff in it where it sometimes feels like a more dressed-up version of the Skinamax-tastic TRUE BLOOD, which for some unknown reason got nominated for an Emmy once itself.

      • kate middleton

        Yes – Game of Thrones! Definitely the best show on HBO without a doubt. I think Boardwalk is beautifully shot, but definitely slow-moving. I am hoping for some big stories this season. But cannot wait for GoT to return in the spring.

      • Nelly

        ITA. True Blood is just pure crap. If you take out all the sex scenes, you have 20 minutes of a non existent plot very bad acted.

  • kim in kentucky

    EXCUSE ME ??????!!!!!! How about, why almost everythere else on tv is better than Jersey Shore !

    • Jennifer

      An empty test pattern would be better than Jersey Shore.

      • Fingerlakes Dave

        Thanks Jennifer!

  • ajay C

    The battle of the ginzos. These WOPS need to go back to their boot and stay there.

  • mel

    Boardwalk Empire is a magnificient piece of art. To mention Jersey Shore in the same sentance is sacrilige. I have never seen an episode of JS because I couldn’t get through the first minute the six or seven times I tried. You wasted my time with this article.

  • Geoff

    Wow. This is just a sad sad article. Incendiary and misguided.

  • Natz

    four pages?

    • Tank Girl

      When I saw four pages I thought at first this was written by Jeff Jensen. Was *very* surprised it was not.

      • @Tank G

        Mr. Jensen wrote amazing articles on Lost et al! This is a pretentious crap from a bored person. I can’t believe anyone would write something like this.

    • Ally

      I know..and I could barely get through the first one..no way Im reading the rest of this ridiculous comparison of reality tv drunken mess to a show like Boardwalk Empire. And I would kindly like to ask someone who actually likes BE to recap it from now on and leave Darren to recap who puked on who in Jersey Shore.

  • NightmareHunter

    I was expecting this article to have some sort of redeeming quality to it. For instance, a piece exploring the degredation of Atlantic City’s booming 1920’s era to the sad Jersey Shore condition we see it in today. I mean, when Always Sunny in Philadelphia parodied it in their recent episode, I found it sad to remember the glamour and prestige the city once held and was left wondering ‘what happened?’… Instead of intelligently discussing the sociocultural factors you could examine between these two shows and what they represent about us as a nation, you completely missed the point.

    • @NightmareHunter

      Uh, I think you’re the one that missed the point.

  • Joe

    I hate, hate, hate Jersey Shore, but I actually thought this was a very well written and interesting article. I wonder if most of the negative commentors on here even bothered to read the whole thing. While I hate Jersey Shore, I agree with your take on Boardwalk Empire; I can just feel the how self-satisfied the show is whenever I watch an episode. I would have never thought to compare the two, but it definitely made for an interesting read. Well done, Darren.

    • kate middleton

      I agree with most of what Darren wrote on Jersey Shore – and it was pretty thought provoking. But I think the connection and “similarities” to Boardwalk Empire cited are tenuous at best. While I do agree that Boardwalk is fairly slow moving and self-satisfied, I don’t think Darren’s article proves that these shows are similar at all.

    • Kat

      I agree with you, Joe.

    • sammyshawn

      Love you darren! Great article. I think people are missing the point. Its supposed to be funny people and it was. But there were some really true elements

  • RB

    I have never seen either of these shows but I found the article very interesting. Especially the commentary on the merits of the modern reality show.

  • 1000days

    “Boardwalk Empire is a consistently disappointing series”

    are you kidding me? are you really saying that jersey shore is better than boardwalk empire? i can understand that some people might find jersey shore entertaining in a guilty pleasure sort of way (though i did throw up a little in my mouth as i was tying), but to say its better than anything up to and including stepping in dog p0op … wow
    my IQ plumetted at just the thought…

  • R. Shakelford

    Interesting article. I would have never thought to compare the emergence of high quality drama with that of reality television. But it does say a lot about our culture to examine the two. Thanks for a good read!

  • matt

    Darren Franich, YOU’RE FIRED!!!

    • Red Bull Bull

      Hope to see you in the unemployment line Darren.
      Is this an April Fools joke !

  • Aimee

    This article was so interesting. I’ve never seen Boardwalk Empire- but I do watch Jersey Shore on a regular basis and I agree with a lot of the points you’ve made. Frankly, I think most of the haters here just haven’t even read what you wrote.

    • Aye

      I’m not sure you should call out the “haters” here for not reading the article that they are bothering to comment on when you have admitted to not watching BE. How can you thoroughly agree with the points the author made if you haven’t even seen the show he is comparing Jersey Shore to?

      I’ve seen both and would never, ever compare the two. I understand the point that is trying to be made, but at the end of the day, Jersey Shore is just stupid and sad.

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